The Road To LEL

I last rode London-Edinburgh-London back in 2013. I was younger, slightly lighter and considerably less experienced than I am now. Nine years later I’m riding it again. Hopefully there will be fewer mistakes than last time, and I made a lot.

The LEL website explains everything except why.

Last time round I staggered over the finish line at 4am with just a few hours in hand. It was dark, cold and more than 90% of the field had finished and gone. There were no trumpets, no dancing girls and no showers of champagne. The volunteers were tired as well and dealt with the last minute stragglers as if they were clearing up after a really long party.

Although the relief at finishing and not having to ride my bike any more was immense, there was a sense of anti-climax. I definitely felt like a deflated party balloon. I guess some of that was down to the muted atmosphere at the finish, but I’d also made a lot of mistakes that had cost time and energy. Allow me to take you through a few of the errors and how I intend to correct them this time round.

Faffing

Faffing is an audaxer’s nemesis. It means spending precious, valuable, priceless time, doing stuff that isn’t helpful or productive. Fiddling about changing layers. Wandering round a Spar trying to work out what you fancy eating. Tinkering with phones. Pottering about in a control looking for food, the toilet, somewhere to sleep. Waiting for other people. In fact, if you ride with a group, the amount of time lost through faffage is multiplied many times, because everyone will want to do the thing at a different time to the rest.

When you’re not actually riding your bike, time speeds up.

The finer the margin between success and failure, the more dangerous faffing becomes. LEL in 2013 was way longer and harder than anything I’d tried before. I’d just about managed a 600km the year before, but LEL was well over double that. Consecutive 300km days will wear you down, like a candle in front of the fire, and the weaker you are, the faster you melt. I was strong enough to finish, because I did, but there was nothing in reserve. If I’d been more disciplined and minimised my faffing, I’d have had more time to sleep and recover. That would have made a significant difference to my ride. I’d have finished in better shape but without having to be stronger or faster.

Being Billy No Mates

Riding solo is fine, I don’t object to my own company, but occasionally having someone to ride with can be a real help. On LEL 2013 I hooked up with a nice chap who was riding at a similar pace to me. We got on well enough – this was a functional relationship of the road after all – but more importantly we could take turns on the front, calling the route and generally distracting each other from the discomfort and occasional tedium of a really long bike ride. It worked well until we stopped at a control for a sleep. Although we’d made plans to resume after a rest, we ended up losing each other. I think I overslept after moving from the dormitory, with its noises and smells, to a comfy sofa in the reception area of the school we were using. Would have made a big difference? Don’t know, but if we’d managed to maintain our discipline and not faff, it might have been helpful.

I also hooked onto a team of Finnish riders. They were very disciplined and rode with a full pace-line, albeit not at racing speed. The road captain called the speed, so everyone was comfortable and nobody got dropped. It was brilliant but it wasn’t to last. One by one they fell away – “carry on lads, save yourselves” – until there was just me and one other. We stayed together for a couple of stages, pausing so he could take a photo of a dead badger (which probably counts as faffing) until it was my turn to do the Captain Oates routine.

The best bit of teamwork was on a night leg from Thirsk on the return to London. The stage ahead was routed over the Howardian Hills. We’d crossed them on the way north and they were savage enough when I felt relatively fresh. Tired and at night they’d have been a horror. Luckily I’d met audax legend Drew Buck (mad bugger, very entertaining and often rides a bike that Maurice Garin’s granny would consider slightly old-fashioned). This year he was dressed as an onion seller, complete with plastic onions, and riding, not a single-speed, but something about 100 years old that changed gear by pedalling backwards while humming La Marseillaise. Or something like that. He was strong but slow, the only way that bike would go fast would be to hurl it off the Eiffel Tower. I was slow, but on a bike that didn’t weigh the same as a skip. We’d bonded over the lack of food at the control and, with the aid of an atlas, decided to take the flat main road past York and save ourselves a lot of pain. It worked beautifully and he was great company – again, a welcome distraction from the pain, miles, tedium etc. Inevitably though it came to an end. Drew suffers from the dozies, where a tired audaxer starts to nod off while riding and simply has to stop for a kip. I don’t and although I broke my ‘sleeping on the verge wrapped in a space blanket’ duck, we ended up parting just after the Humber bridge. Sadly Drew didn’t finish LEL that year – he rode into a ditch. Or possibly a hedge. Anyway, he was fine, but out of time.

So, this time round I’ll try a bit harder to a) find good wheels to follow and b) hang on to them.

Smell the flowers and drink the beer

Despite spending five days on LEL 2013 I didn’t stop once for a pint. Shocking behaviour. Not only does a pint of beer contain a whole pint of liquid, it also has valuable calories, vitamins and essential minerals. A pint can be downed in no time at all and makes the world a nicer place. It’s also a good way to just stop and calm down, even for just a moment. I’ve been doing this on my rides this year and it really works – that little micro-rest is just enough of a reset to make a difference. It’s not faffing, or dead time, because it really helps. Plus, where there’s beer there’s salted peanuts. Cramp is a bastard, so liquid & salt are practically medicinal.

Audax rations

No Sleep Til Malton

You can’t ride LEL without stopping to sleep and the controls are amply supplied with airbeds and blankets. The problem is that once you’ve stopped, it can be very hard to get going again. Waking in a groggy stupor, feeling sick and achy after 3hrs fitful tossing in a room full of snoring, farting strangers is not nice. Some people cope perfectly well, I don’t. So, last time I stopped far too early. After only 270km in fact. I thought I was being sensible and disciplined, because that was where I’d planned to sleep, but the much, much wiser riders I spent Day One with (oh yeah, more good wheels spurned…) said it was too early and they were pushing on. I slept surprisingly well but getting going again was hard and the early stop put me at the back of the pack. We had a blistering headwind on Day One and were making fantastic progress – I’d have done well to carry on like that for at least another 100km. Those kilometres at Day One pace, rather than Day Two pace would have put me in a much better place. Silly boy.

Me after 3hrs kip half way round the Kernow & SW 600km audax in 2012. I felt as crap as I looked. The grinning sadist beside me is Ian Hennessey – Lord Audax – who is much better at these things than me.

Drop Bags Don’t Mean Shit

Everyone gets fearfully excited about where to have their drop bags. I certainly did. A drop bag (you get two) means clean clothes and other supplies. Nice to have. The mistake many new riders make is using those bag drops as a fixed point around which the ride revolves. In my head a nice little bit of choreography would play out: get to control, eat huge meal, have a shower, change into fresh clothes & then sleep. It didn’t always work out like that and trying to force reality to conform to my plan was impossible. So, kids, don’t get hung up on those bags!

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