LEL 2013

Note, this is based on my very first experience of audaxing. Not all audaxes are like this, so its a limited experience. The London-Edinburgh-London is Britain’s answer to the classic French Paris-Brest-Paris, the main difference (apart from the country) being you don’t need to qualify to ride it, so first-timers can have a go. Its also very different to the standard audax, both in length, and the army of volunteers who man the Control Points up and down the country ensuring that riders are fed and watered and alive.

I guess its my fault. I laid down the challenge to Eddie, (aka David as that’s actually his name) to compete  in my favourite mountain bike event, the Dyfi Enduro, before he’s 40. Eddie is a long term and committed roadie. He agreed to it, aslong as I rode the London Edinburgh London audax before I was 40. Seemed fair enough. I’d just got a road bike, how hard could it be to ride it the length of the country and back? He rode it in 2009 (its every 4 years) and swore never to do it again. Should have listened…

When entries opened in the middle of the night in the midst of winter, I really could have been lucky enough to miss it, if only I’d gone to bed at a sensible time. As it was, entries sold out in in hours, so by breakfast time, my place was bought and paid for. At the time, I could barely walk as I’d trashed a muscle in my back, so the thought of actually riding a bike 1400km was a long way from my mind.

Roll forward a couple of months and I’m thinking about kit. The planned custom steel frame isn’t going to materialise in time so I need a pair of forks to hang my disc-brake dynamo wheel from. A suitable pair is acquired, only they’re attached to a tidy titanium On One cyclocross-frame. Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound and a whole new bike is built up from ebay bargains.

A plan is hatched. A target of 96 hours as Eddie did the last one in 98 hours. A 10am start and aim for certain control points for overnight stops: Pocklington, Moffat, Barnard Castle, St Ives, back in London for 10am thursday.

Then the training starts. A few local 50-ish km rides. Then a couple of 80s over Hartside Pass and back for Easter. Back is recovering nicely, so then its up to  an imperial century up to to Kielder and by the end of May I’ve decided to ride home in Northumberland from the inlaws in Essex via as much of the LEL route as possible, 600km over 2 days. Day one saw me overheating, dehydrating and crawling through a headwind over the fens, then freezing my bits off as it got dark as I managed the 360km to my folks in Wakefield. A serious lesson in epic distances and timing, sorry for scaring you Mum and Dad!. The following day with a hint of a tailwind, was surprisingly easy as I spun the rest of the way home. The training continued to ramp up, following the LEL route up to Edinburgh and back in abysmal conditions, and my final big ride before “tapering” was 300km including twice over the highest point of the LEL: Yad Moss.

I decided that is was going to be suitably challenging for me, I could justify trying to raise a bit of money for a charity I support: The Ben Williams Trust. http://www.justgiving.com/Paul-Marshall-LEL

SUNDAY                                                     

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So, to the event. The bike was all sorted having had a front wheel rebuild a couple of days before. We drove down to Essex, and I headed to the start to register the day before, feeling quietly confident. Then the following morning, disaster struck. I couldn’t move my head! What had been a faintly stiff neck had turned into a solid lump. A bit of pummeling from a vicious sister-in-law and I could move it just enough to look up from the handlebars. (not enough to look sideways for traffic, but that’s another issue).

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I met up with Eddie at the start, having never actually ridden a bike with him, I make it just in time and we’re off. Happily spinning through the Essex countryside, I can’t help notice Eddie dropping the gears on every climb, when I’m standing up on the pedals. He keeps going, briefly mentioning feeling a bit rubbish, and his knee giving a little twinge from time to time. Once through Essex and Cambridgeshire and away from the confusion of the London-to-Cambridge Sportive and we’re out on the fens. The forecast southerly wind makes the riding fast and simple. I always knew the fens would be my nemesis. I simply can’t cope with flat straight roads, a point highlighted in my earlier crossing, but the tailwind ease us through. We make it to Market Rasen before dark, layer up and turn lights on and head to Pocklington. Crossing the Humber Bridge, at about 11:30 with no traffic around, watching the moon rise in the east is almost magical, although getting stuck in the car-parks at the other end less so. We roll into Pocklington at 1-2ish am, and discover there are no beds available and those that have them are being kicked out every 3 hours. I opt for a quick shower and change and find a space under a dining table on the floor for a couple of hours lie down, during which I reckon I slept about an hour.

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MONDAY

Up at 4, kick Eddie out from his table. Bacon buttie and cup of tea and we’re off, over the Howardian Hills. They’re not high, but there are some horribly steep bits. Getting to the Thirsk control point is a slog, a point that is made in the queue for food as Eddie suddenly turns pale and faints. Luckily I caught him, and the site first aider ensures that his food is brought to him at a table. I still have to queue. Food consumed, with the command to eat more during the ride, we stock up at Tesco, watching the majority of riders miss the turn past the race course, and push on to Barnard Castle. I rode for a while with a couple of mapless Frenchmen who commented that “I seemed to know the way and wasn’t riding too fast”. So I left them to fend for themselves as  I waited for Eddie by a diversion that was sort of known about. Barnard Castle came and went, and then a very pleasant afternoon climb up Yad Moss (familiarity helps) and blast down to Alston, including surprising a few of the foreigners with the speed at which the cobbles can be ridden. After a few minutes resting in the sunshine, I struggled to get going, but once up on the Brampton road, I got the bit between my teeth and started picking off people in front, only to get held up at the level crossing. Arrival at Brampton was at a sensible hour, and after the previous night’s lack of sleep we got beds and settled down for a luxurious 6 hours sleep.

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TUESDAY

Early start and despite the damp cold cumbrian air, we seemed to be in high spirits. However the first slight incline on the road to Longtown showed Eddie’s knee to be in a huge amount of pain. The decision was made that I would drop him at the Border and push on for the 96 hour target. So once through Gretna, after a couple of on-the-road photos, I upped the speed and was away.

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I caught a large group working together, but went straight past them, on the crapply surfaced B7076 to Moffat where I consumed the finest porridge ever tasted. Just as I was was setting off Eddie turned up, so hello/goodbye and up the Devil’s Beeftub for the 20km descent down the Tweed.

The final leg to Edinburgh was made a lot more enjoyable by sharing the work with someone of identical pace to mine, so we properly caned it. Edinburgh arrived with relief, even if a little quietly except for the squeak from a broken mudguard bracket which was subsequently fixed with electrical tape. The control points had settled into a routine for me now. Stamp the brevet card, stretch, eat, toilet, fill water bottles, away. Nowhere near as fast as the experienced guys though. Once past the awful climb up through Gorebridge, briefly accompanied by a mad Swedish fellow on a recumbent playing Polka music very loudly, I settled into the climbs and headwinds to Innerleithen and Eskdalemuir. Having ridden this in far, far, worse conditions previously, I found it really wasn’t too bad, even enjoyable as I gradually picked my way past people in front, briefly sharing the work before moving on. Made a slight mistake with the food at Eskdalemuir by eating way too much as it was too nice, and paid the price with a bit of discomfort. Still the turn back east at Longtown always lifts me up, and arrival at Brampton just missing a torrential downpour cheered me more. The rain looked set to stay, people were bedding down for the night, but a marshal on the door pointed out the light on the horizon. 10 minutes later, the sun was shining and I headed out in the cool evening over Yad Moss once more. Again, familiarity of the road helped and was at the top in no time. Layered up in all my clothes as it was getting colder and had a real hoot overtaking people on the descent in the dark. I had been thinking of pushing on to Thirsk, but decided to call it a day at midnight at Barnard Castle as  I was starting to feel a little dozy, dangerous at speed…

WEDNESDAY

Once more an early cold start as I cranked it back to Thirsk. I was surpised how I was feeling. My hands were occasionally tingling, as were my feet. The stiff neck had subsided and the chamois cream was preventing me getting too sore. I was starting to suffer a slight sore knee due to a worn shoe-cleat letting my left foot slide around a bit too much, but all-in-all, I was feeling pretty good. That was about to change. Thirsk came and went. The Howardian Hills were bigger and longer than remembered, but again, came and went. Pocklington turned up and I couldn’t help but sit at the table I had spent my hellish first night underneath. As I neared Kirk Ella and Hull though, I was riding on my own, the traffic was picking up and I knew heavy rain was forecast for later, moving north so it was going to get me at some point. I slowly eased myself past Beverly. Speed and spirits dropping rapidly. I slowly span across the Humber Bridge, not looking anywhere near as pretty in the grey light of day. Briefly held onto the shiny CK wheel of a passing Dane, but just couldn’t keep going. I stopped by the side of the road to eat, not something I’d had to do in the last few days. Somebody rode past and asked if I was ok. I realised I hadn’t actually spoke to anyone for hours and it dawned on me that I was basically lonely, on top of being tired. So thankyou, kind person from Derby, we chatted for a good half hour or so as we made our way up into the Lincolnshire Wolds as the rain started. Unfortunately, as the hills got bigger, I was feeling back on good form, and settled into my natural climbing pace, which dropped my new friend a bit too fast. Sorry if I appeared rude… Market Rasen eventually turned up, and I sat dripping in the dining hall trying to make a decision. Ride on through the rain to St Ives as planned, or sit it out. Frantic texts to a friend (thanks Ben!) informed that there was a good 4 hours or so rain to come. So I bedded down, and dropped straight into a deep sleep.

THURSDAY (Well, a bit before)

Woken up as planned 3 ½ hours later for a 10pm, dry, start. Only when loading the bike up did I notice the rear tyre was flat. And on taking the wheel off, I discovered a broken spoke. Luckily the controls all have a mechanic with a well-stocked toolbox. Cassette off, spoke replaced with a spare I was carrying, wheel back together and new inner tube fitted. As I was about to set off an hour later than planned, I noticed someone else in the bike shed fixing a puncture. Only by recognising first the wheel rim, then hub and then tyre of the punctured wheel, did I realise it was Eddie! He’d ridden straight through from Brampton and was good to carry on. So once more, we set off together, away from the hills that ruined his knee, mainly by chasing me up them. Another puncture and a couple of wrong turns due to me misreading the GPS as my frazzled mind couldn’t cope with going north to south, on the OS map, rather then south to north, and we rolled into Kirton around 3:15am, glad to get Holland Fen out of the way. At this point we split again. Eddie needed more sleep, I was keen to get the thing over and done with. So I rode solo through Spalding, nearly getting knocked off as I jumped a red light at 4:30am, over Great Fen accompanied by swans flying alongside me as the sun rose, and into St Ives as the A14 rush hour commenced. On leaving St Ives, it suddenly got hot. Very hot. I hadn’t bothered to put suncream on at 10pm the night before and was now too filthy for it to stick. Oh well, one day left. Crossing Cambridgeshire started off very well. I felt I was flying up through Bourne on roads familiar to me from years gone by, helped by being offered a wheel to follow of a local old-boy out for spin. He tore my legs off but it meant I made some good progress. But the roads went on and on and on. The sun got hotter, the south-east wind picked up, the climbs turned into mini alpine epics, all 30m ascent of each one! I had to stop in the shade near Audley End, amazed how far I still had to go. Another drink stop at the village stop in Debden and I picked up some local cyclists out for a ride who happily towed me along for a while with a comment of “you’re one of THEM aren’t you?”. Eventually I arrived to a doughnut and sweet-fest at Great Easton. Caloried up and frankly desperate to get back to Fi and the boys, I near as dammit sprinted the final 45km back to Loughton, drafting a lorry for as long as I could and then barrelling down the desents. The final climbs I eeeked out every last bit of power I could find, just, wanting, to, finish.

Then I was there. Up the approach to the school, overtaken by the wired Irish guy who I dropped when drafting the truck, through the gate, into the arms of my family. Never have I felt so much relief to get off a bike. I could barely walk, but boy I could smile.

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My final time was just over 100 hours, the GPS showed that I spent about 60 of the hours actually moving. So I missed the 96 hour target, but who cares, I’m not going back to do it again. The Fens, and Lincolnshire in general have put me right off that.

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As for Audaxing, I may do another. The thing is, I don’t really like following other people’s routes. I don’t like following instructions. Give me a map and a bit of time, I live for an epic ride, but it needs to be MY epic ride.

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