audax

Not Quite the Spurn Head 400 km (greenfly edition)

12/05/18

Mytholmroyd Community Centre

If certain residents of the Yorkshire village of Moss had reason to peer through their curtains shortly after 2.00 am on a Sunday morning in May, they would have seen four people sheltering from the rain at a bus stop, introducing themselves having already ridden together for several hours, eating, squeezing the water out of their gloves and weeing without bothering to find a bush to hide behind (not necessarily in that order).

Still weather, Spurn Head 400 km

I rode the first part alone, feeling as the rest of us did like a piece of fly paper as we ploughed through the clouds of greenfly.  I’d sort of joined Eddie on the skirting of Hull, but we weren’t quite riding together as such, mostly because I don’t know how to technically, but also because I’m socially incompetent (sometimes that is an overwhelming anxiety but at the moment it’s just uncomfortable).  He was a nice guy and I was touched that he remembered me from my aborted 600 km last year – I recognised him but couldn’t have placed him, but he’d seen me having a minor meltdown and migraine under a tree in Pocklington; I remember someone waving at me and I just shook my head.  We ate together at Spurn Head but didn’t really chat, and I thought he’d already left but when I went to go he was still there, wrestling with leg warmers.

Spurn Head Spurn Head visitors centre

Mike was also preparing to leave and had parked his bike next to mine, and seemed keen to join us so we made a little trio without really trying to.  We didn’t ride that close together and I think I went out a bit too far in front sometimes, but I was trying to stay with them but also go at my pace. They both had GPS although Mike’s only seemed to be useful for telling him when he’d sailed past a junction that Eddie and I had turned at (and not knowing someone’s name makes it harder to call after them); however I have my suspicions that this may have been if not operator-error then at least operator-can’t-be-arsed-to-pay-attention-when-they-can-just-follow-someone-else.

We stopped way too long at Leven petrol station, I was about ready to go when Mike Wiggly appeared; other Mike had been riding with him further back and decided we should wait and take him with us.  They phoned wives and girlfriends to check in and report on progress.  I didn’t.  Mike W clumsily commented on my rainbow sew-on patch and I clumsily replied.  I asked for two carrier bags with my smoothie/flapjack/eccles cake purchase, and they stayed on until I got back home.

Second socks

Timing was good, better than last time no doubt due to the kind wind.  I remember it being pitch black on arrival at McDonalds then, whereas today there was still some light in the sky.  There was also water falling from it, which had been light enough that I hadn’t bothered with the waterproof but after this it would be needed for warmth too, plus that rain was setting in more permanently.  Mike W decided to stay for another coffee so the remaining three of us reluctantly made a start on this long dark leg. Negotiating Goole we picked up Carl, who had been ahead, but lost confidence in his navigation, and turned back.  It was good riding with others in the dark, the extra lights are helpful (although Mike’s strobe on the front was bit too disco for me).  I liked the flat Kings Causeway section although I think some of the others found it mind-numbing. This ride has an almost constant stream of routesheet instructions, there are hardly any long uninterrupted stretches.  Apart from a couple of junction confirmations with Eddie’s GPS, and one that I missed, I pretty much took the front and did the navigating.  It reminded me a bit of LEL, and the night I rode silently with a group from all over the world, weaving across the road as they either nodded off, forgot which side to ride on, or possibly both.

Mike came off going over a railway line in Thorne which crossed the road at a stupid angle, so we all stoped and Mike W happened to catch us at the same time. He seemed ok but we made him stand still for a little while to make sure he wasn’t going to keel over. A car actually came by just behind us, as he was still lying on the road, and didn’t stop.  Around here I started to wonder how safe this pastime of ours is…it was cold, wet, and dark.  We were in a village and I dare say could have woken up a household if needed, but there was no sign of (awake) life and no shelter.  I thought of the riders doing the Old 240 and where would they be at this time of night?  I don’t know if I could do that ride, I wouldn’t feel safe.

Mike W shot off and the rest of us wound our way on, via that bus shelter in Moss.  I’d stopped there last year too.  I thought we’d been doing a reasonable 20 kph average on the flat but soon the hills started and we slowed right down. Unusually for me I felt I could have gone faster, and found myself slowing to let the others catch up.  But I was glad of their company, not being scared of the shadows this time.

Eventually Woolley Edge services appeared.  By accident rather than design we arrived at 3.50 am which was exactly on my approximate schedule, although again we stayed longer that I’d have liked.  But now there was only 35 km to go, and the dawn to look forward to.  Mike was nodding off but the rest of us seemed ok.  We chatted about bikes and riding.  It was Carl’s first 400 km.  He said my navigation was excellent which I really appreciated.  He and Eddie exchanged numbers on the basis of a potential bar-end shifter sale.

Emley Moor

By the time we set off the sky was already lightening, and a rather nice morning was underway.  Mike and Carl both knew their way round a slightly longer but flatter route via Brighouse, so Eddie and I followed them, Carl and I seeming similarly paced and the other two a little behind (a sort of taking-a-leak time delay which was convenient). I didn’t think we’d manage, but we got back just before 7 am.  There had been a time when I thought 24 hours was possible, but the slow night leg and longer stops prevented that. But it was surprisingly nice to ride with others for once.

Spurn Head route map

410 km, 25.5 hours

The Laminator ate my Routesheet: Beyond the Dales We Know 300 km helper’s ride

21/04/18

 

I’d left myself some things to keep me occupied the evening before the ride (or you could consider that I’d left somethings until the last minute), so it was that I was laminating the route sheets. The first one got stuck inside.  I could have gone back in to work, printed it out again and used the work laminator but the thought of going back there again, especially on a Friday evening, was too much. Fortunately I had (a) a spare paper copy (although half the size so reading it might be challenging) and (b) a bar bag with waterproof map case. When it had cooled down I took the bloody thing apart and retrieved the unusably-crumpled sheet, but I didn’t want to risk the others through it at this point.   So all was well apart from the fact that I’d have extra, unattractive, luggage, and the final stage which would be ridden in the dark would rely on rather small font. I took maps as a back-up anyway but marked on this final stage in case.

Laminator

I rode this last year and this time Dean had asked if I would stamp cards at the Markington checkpoint, so this was ridden as a helper’s ride; effectively a perm in the fortnight before the event. To aid logistics I opted to start and finish at Ilkley, which is the closet point to Leeds. My aim was to get back in time for the last train home (I did NOT want to be tackling the Cow and Calf/Otley Chevin/Pool Bank in the dark with 300 km in my legs to get home). Some planning based on 20 kph riding and realistic but not too generous stops meant that I’d have to leave home at 4 am. I re-wrote the route sheets to make home – Ilkley part of the ride, and re-set the distance to zero at the start of each stage, which I’d found beneficial on LEL.

morning
This is what audacious looks like

I slept badly and was only dozing when the alarm went off at 3.30 am.  My clothes were ready but I still needed to make the final decisions on outer wear, and after feeling the temperature outside opted for winter gloves and shoes.  The last couple of days had been a ‘heatwave’ (for April) but with the clear sky the night had been cold. A first outing for the LEL jersey (an attempt to humble/ridicule myself into continuing when the going gets tough) and I was happy to see that it fits better than it did when I got it before en end of last year. Jumper and short-sleeve high vis/windprrof gilet on top and leg warmers I though I’d be fine, with enough bits to take off to be flexible. The forecast was for warm sun with thunder and rain by the evening. So a waterproof and rain gloves when in too.  In fact I took four pairs of gloves with me (this is what happens when you take excessive luggage – more than LEL or BGB) – you fill it up. In the event the only pair I didn’t use were the wet ones.

It was chilly heading down to Ilkley, as it’s mostly downhill so not much opportunity to warm up. Being audax-o’clock I took the A roads which were fairly deserted.  There were a few cars and I did see one other cyclist.  The petrol station control in Ilkley isn’t 24 hours and its external cash machine wasn’t working, so I continued on the town centre for a cash machine and receipt. I was impressed that it read 5.01 am which made me look very organised. I had done a good check on the map of the centre and how to get back on route because getting lost so early on would make me excessively grumpy.

There was already a dull green glow in the east, and soon I didn’t need my head torch to read the routesheet, which was a good job as the batteries were struggling. After some lanes out of Ilkley (featuring suicidal bunnies) the route follows the Wharfe up the valley past Bolton Abbey.  This is a nice overalll climb but not much silly steepness. Despite climbing I was colder now, and there were a few patches of frost on the roadside leaves in the hollows.

Wharfedale Wharfedale

The sun was catching the hills to my left, and eventually it came down to meet the road and I bathed in its warmth. Not exactly; at this hour it was a psychological heating rather than anything else. I could have put my waterproof on for extra warmth but I was nearly warm enough and knew it would improve soon.  The valley was gorgeous, with the dawn light and dewy fields. At the other side of the river I saw the campsite and pub at Craven Arms which we passed recently while Springing into the Dales, and eventually joins that route at Burnsall Bridge.

Then it’s in the general direction of Grassington, then Kettlewell, which aren’t quite visited (Beyond the Dales You Know, see), branching off for Arncliff and Littondale.  The first control is the Queens in Litton, definitely not open at 7 am, so photos taken for proof of passage.

Queens Arms in Littondale Queens Arms in Littondale

This side of the valley was in the shade so I kept going a bit further, to the turnoff at Halton Gill, before I stopped for my breakfast of supermarket sandwich brought with me. The extra luggage was actually quite useful throughout the day as essentially a larder, doing the ride from an alternative start buggered up some of the carefully selected controls as far as food went. This well-prepared audaxer returned home with more food that he took…

Halton Gill

I’d remembered the climb out of here as being a bastard, and it does have some steep sections (featuring an up-hill cattlegrid which is tough, they are much easier to speedily freewheel over), but the steep sections are short and the descent to Stainforth is long. Pen-y-Ghent Gill carves a lovely deep gorge down to the left, as the pass travels between Fountains Fell and Pen-y-Ghent.

Littondale Halton Gill - Stainforth

Then it’s the main road up through Horton-in-Ribblesdale to Ribblehead, again it looked like there was a three peaks event on, with lots of cars and a gazebo in the field in Horton.  I wasn’t expecting he burger van at the Ribblehead junction to be open at my target time of 9 am and was pondering my stop strategy, but it was there so I pulled in. However although it was there, the side open and the radio on, the proprietor was absent; according to a couple having their own brew in the car/van parked next door she had taken her dog for a quick walk before opening (it was about 8.50 am). Although I’d really fancied a coffee I didn’t want to hang around so just had one of my flapjacks and got going. It was beautifully sunny and clear, I’d already stopped to take my jumper off (and remove a fly from my eye, multitasking stops are always good) and I was feeling like I was going well.

After a gentle climb the cars became sparse again and the turnoff for Dentdale appeared. This is a great descent which provides views from above the viaduct and later below, the former would have been a nice picture but it’s not an easy place to stop.

Dent viaduct

I remembered that I’d been particularly miserable here last time and was feeling quite the opposite.  You barely have to pedal for a long time  It was on the approach to Dent that I suddenly remembered it has cobbles, and changed down several gears and braced myself. My bike and wheels are quite chunky, and I wonder how slimmer models manage over this. Dean had helpfully noted that there are toilets and an outside tap here, the latter especially useful as I’d had no options for refills until now.

On through Sedburgh, one of the bigger towns visited, but feeling no need to stop I began the climb up Howill Lane.  This was less painful than I remembered too, I don’t know if this is because last time was further through the ride, or I was more cheery this time, or just that I’d done it before so I could do it again.  A couple of more speedy riders came passed me along here, I was quite happy to be overtaken and probably still retaining some smugness that I’d got all the way here from Leeds and it was only 10 am. [John le Carre quote]. The descent alongside the Howgills was even more enjoyable than last time in the crisp sun.  I almost waved at a train speeding south along the west coast main line such was my delight (apparently I gave up waving at trains when entering adulthood).

Howgill Lane Howgills and the River Lune

I feel sorry for Tebay, I suppose its position is not unlike Moffat in that a motorway has removed much of its passing trade, but Moffat retains the A701 route and has gone upmarket since I was young, but Tebay just looks tired. I was pleased to see some non-lorry traffic at the services, including a hen party. I had a decent length stop here, it was warm now so arm and leg warmers off and sun cream on, and a reapplication of Conotrane while I had suitable facilities.

At Tebay services
Ever glamorous

I’d remembered the first bit of the next section, where the route heads up and through unfenced moorland. There was a particularly magic moment when I crossed a cattle grid and as soon as the noise of it ceased so did the roadside trees and fences and it was suddenly open and quiet. Stopping to take one of many photos along here I was caught by another cyclist who stopped to ask where I was going.  He had heard of Audax and had a suspiciously tatty Carradice.

Nameless moors near Great Asby Scar

Through Great Musgrave which I remembered from last year, after the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Musgrave Ritual’; I checked last time and in the story they are in Surrey, never mind.  After Brough was the climb to Middleton-in-Teesdale which I hadn’t remembered until I saw the junction.  It’s lovely, but manages to combine a steep up-up-up climb with an up-down-up descent, so there is not much time to relax.  Middleton soon arrived and I’d already planned a visit to the Co-op, remembering that I would need sustinence for the next control(s) too.  Here was my mistake. I thought I’d learned my lesson on overeating, but it turns out that a Mars Bar ice cream AND a hot cheese and onion pasty (in that order naturally) still counts as too much.  To Staindrop was ok, just feeling a little stuffed. I stopped to take a photo of the church, but also noted that although I didn’t know the info control question here I knew it’s location and took an educated guess that it would be ‘name of fish and chip shop’.  Either way I’m sure my passage through would be suitably evidenced.

St Mary the Virgin, Staindrop

The route was flatter now now but I started to feel sick and had a headwind which did nothing for comfort or morale. The nausea was fairly convincing and I pondered my best options to pack – not far to Northallerton and still plenty of time to get a train back to Leeds.  But I really wanted to finish this; remember you are wearing your LEL jersey, keep going and see how it goes.

I felt rather sorry for Dean around here because the roads and signs must be changing almost constantly and keeping the routesheet up to date must have been a nightmare. I got through without any wrong turnings so he must have done a good job. I had also studied the route quite carefully beforehand, because I got lost near the end last time and didn’t want to repeat the exercise. So I had a pretty good idea that I was going in the right general direction all the time.  The A6055 follows the A(M)1, and may be able to become the new B7076 in terms of ubiquitousness and boredom, but it has a damn-site better (new) road surface. I stopped on one of the bridges over the motorway and had my carton of chocolate ‘milk’ (soya) which I know my stomach likes, and a little feeling-sorry-for-myself break. Heading off again I felt a little better and thought I’d make a decision on packing when I got to the road which could lead to Northallerton. I don’t think that I ever actually made a decision, but ended up turning off anyway at Ainderby Steeple for Newby Wiske (they do like their double-barrels around here). Shortly after I met some people at the roadside wrestling with a bike and with a jauntily-parked car; my initial though was ‘accident’ but when I asked if all was ok one of them said they had a problem with the chain, so I stopped to investigate. It was a lad with his bike and his parents or friends who had come out to rescue him in their car. The chain was not only off the big ring but also over the crank and pedal and one of the assistants was trying to puzzle out how it went back on. I managed to sort it and the rider seemed keen to cycle home, so we suggested he do so in a middleing gear and not try changing it to be on the safe side. It didn’t take long and was a sufficient distraction (probably because I had successfully managed to help) that it gave my brain a bit of a kick and so while my stomach didn’t feel right for the rest of the ride my head at least did.

The control at Newby Wiske was a bit weird because even though I knew it wasn’t the end of MY ride I knew it was the end of THE ride. I stopped for another selfie by the village sign and had half a sandwich, which went down ok.

Newly Wiske

It was flat and not far to Boroughbridge, where I thought the traditional remedy of coke and salt and vinegar crisps might be a good idea. They were, although the Spar receipt was useless not having a location on it. The cash machine just over the bridge earlier would be a better option. I took yet another selfie when I turned off on the distinctive road ‘St Helena’ which I thought would suffice.  Arm warmers, gilet and lights went on here.

Boroughbridge

It it was only 15 km to Markington, where I would be stamping cards next weekend.  I actually had no recollection of this on last years ride, and still didn’t recognise it when I got there. I took another photo, noted the location of the campsite where I plan to stay on Friday night, switched on my headtorch (having put the new batteries in I need at Tebay) and pressed on.

Markington

On leaving I was half an hour ahead of my schedule and had that ‘I’m actually going to do it’ moment. I had two things in mind, completing within time (definitely possible as the minimum speed is low) and getting my train home, which was more debatable but held considerable mental weight. I kept telling myself that validation was the more important thing and that it was hardly the end of the world if I had to get a taxi home from Ilkley, or worse, summon the courage to ride.

I’d forgotten in my time calculations the slowing which happens in the dark; I find descents challenging and never make it to the big ring. I do think my light could go a few degrees upwards which would help. But still, this last bit had some hills and I couldn’t make up any time on the descents. I was also now using my tiny-font routesheet with map back-up, and although the routesheet was ok I did have to stop to read it at each instructions, the road vibrations being too much for clarity. The very straight but horribly-surfaced road by Fewston barracks was at least not too bad at this time of day as it was quiet, and I was able to ride in the middle of the road to avoid the worst of the potholes. The steep hill after this, climbing after the reservoirs, I hadn’t remembered and could have done without. Although Ilkley isn’t a bad start, Newby is better because you get a flat start and a flat finish.

I could see the lights of various towns in the valley below but was getting worried about my slowness and getting back for the train so was distracted and not able to enjoy the views. I blame this on my bike computer; I had been looking at the distance which had been 17.1 km and seemed very slow to get to 17.2, etc; I thought this was me looking at it too often but after a while realised it had changed itself to read average speed rather than distance. So that meant my average speed for this leg was 17 kph….not good for getting back in time. I didn’t let myself look at my watch because there was nothing I could do about it.

Slowly the route asymptotically approached the lit A road to Ilkley and eventually met the bridge over to the control petrol station.  In the interests of knowing where I was and not faffing I decided to return to the town centre for a receipt and the station; risking a look at my watch it was 10:45 pm, so I bombed it along the road (amazed that I still had the energy and legs) and got back to my starting cash machine. Just under 18 hours and I was very happy, although thought that ‘contingency’ should be a future consideration.  The last train to Leeds was everything I dreamed of, full of drunk people, although to be fair they left me along. A large group of under-20s blokes with a few women, they were very noisy.  The toilet, which unfortunately I was next to, was marked ‘out of order’ but several of them were clearly desperate. After attempts to pee out of the train doors at a station or on the platform (foiled because it didn’t stop for long enough) they forced the door open, at which point it was visited by about 10 of them followed by one for vomiting purposes. I can only hope the defect wasn’t the flush.

The forecast thunder kept its distance, it started to rain as the train pulled out of Ilkley and had apparently just stopped when I got back to Leeds.  Couldn’t have planned it better if I’d tried.

The final ride ride home was the usually dodging of revellers through the town centre, uncomfortable in backside (mostly) and legs. But Carr Manor Road seemed tame in comparison to some of today’s hills. I got back and had a shower to remove the sun cream-adhered dirt that I didn’t really want in my bed, and had a cup of tea to try and rehydrate, even did a few back stretches, so wasn’t in bed until 2 am. 22.5 hours, and only on checking the following day have I realised I did 200 miles, which is rather satisfying. I’m very glad that I got through the rough patch.  At the time of writing (the next day) I feel like I’ve been through the mill, arm and chest muscles hurt as well as knees and thighs. It’s real step up from 200 km.

Beyond the Dales route

 

333 km (207 miles), 17 hrs 45 mins, 3,725 m climbed

27-29/04/18

 

The ride itself…cycled up to Markington in the rain, which stopped on arrival.  Tent up and finally in the pub (The Yorkshire Hussar) by 9 pm, in my wet clothes to just about dry off.  Busy and a bit posh but there was a little back room with a chap watching football and another sitting at the bar, so I joined them and we ignored each other for a couple of hours.  Very nice Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker accompanied the reading of John Buchan’s Huntingtower on my phone, as I had disappointingly failed to fit a book in my panniers.

Beer in the Yorkshire Hussar

Next morning after coffee and porridge I was in position at around 7 am for the first rider at 7.20 am.  All in good spirits if a little cold, which it certainly was.  The wisdom of a situation next to the defibrillator was noted.  The final rider came through just after 8 am, all still close together as only 42 km into the ride.  It was good to put names to some now-familiar faces from other events.

Camping stove Bike and control at Markington

After a second breakfast I packed up, failed to warm up, and started off along the route in reverse to Newby Wiske.  It took a long time before I had warmed up enough to take a layer off.

Milestone

Arrived at HQ around 12 pm to an alien invasion, and to find the hosts having the slight problem of no electricity to the building.  They soon fixed it and I went off in search of beer supplies for later.  Then it was a case of waiting for riders returning, ringing cow bells at them and drinking beer.

Tents

100 km or so over the weekend

Spring into the Dales 100 km

08/04/18

I last did this three years ago shortly after moving to Leeds, then 2016 was a year of surgery and no rides, and last year I ended up on the shorter Leap into the Aire after a travel-to-the-start cock-up.  The train from Leeds arrives in Mytholmroyd 6 minutes after the start, so I was always going to be ‘behind’.  I was happy that the ride up out of Hebden Bridge and down to Oxenhope was easier than on the first occasion.  Mist was lifting out of the Worth Valley ahead and the views were great.

Worth Valley from Cock Hill

The rest of the hills, of which the ride is entirely consisted, were hard going.  I got to the checkpoint at Earby around the same time as a few others, but got going again as quickly as I could, pausing only to down a banana.  The first control proper was at Gargrave and again I went into the Dalesman Cafe and wondered why there were so few of us in there, although this time my beans on toast were quite slow coming and rather low on the beans, so I’m not sure I’ll visit again.  By the time I left the controllers were also leaving and there was no sign of anyone else on the ride, so I started to worry that I’d be brining up the rear for the rest of the day.  Once off again I took a right turn prematurely but happily realised very soon and only added an extra km.  Some nice lanes around here.

Tea at the Dalesman Cafe Yorkshire lane

I saw a few other riders but wasn’t sure if they were actually doing this ride or just happened to be going the same way.  I lost a couple of them near Bolton Abbey where we crossed the Wharfe so maybe the latter.

Bike at bridge over the River Wharfe

Blimey that bar bag is fugly.  Arriving at the control in Keighley I was happy to find quite a few others and felt like I was on a calendar event after all.  Rossi’s cafe is great.  The person serving took a bit of convincing that yes I did want a large coffee; it was a small bathtub but I had found the ride hard going and it was just what I needed.  With that and a chocolate-topped flapjack I was ready for the final 20 km back over Cock Hill.  I actually enjoyed this climb both ways, it’s long but doable, in contrast with some of the steeper hills on this ride which in the latter stages had me asking “what the actual fuck?” when I saw the walls of tarmac coming nearer.  I did make it up them all though.  It’s not quite the hilliest ride I’ve done (the Season of Mists is a 2.5 AAA and got me a gold badge), but it is fairly early in the year, and they are just unrelenting.  Thus my top-of-cock selfie is no reflection on Calerdale, which I was quite happy to be welcomed to.

Top of Cock Hill Top of Cock Hill, looking south-ish

Spring into the Dales 2018 route

117 km, average 18 kph (oh dear), riding time 6:29, total time 7:51, 2.25 AAA

Scottish Borders Randonee 200 km

24/03/18

An adventure often calls to mind, or requires, or both, a book.  This ride was to be a little adventure, and a little book was borrowed from the library; John Buchan’s John Macnab.  Sir Edward Leithen and friends are experiencing what would probably be diagnosed today as ‘mild to moderate depression’ and end up playing poachers on three Scottish estates.  Being away from their usual surroundings, physically challenged, and engaging in (what they perceive to be) a high-stakes game has the effect of making them feel ‘alive’ and improves their mental health. Now I find it an over-simplification to say that cycling keeps me sane, or that getting out on the bike makes me feel better; my current bout of depression started while I was riding more last year, increasing my distances in preparation for LEL. The lead up to and start of a ride are usually stressful times, not so much a question of physical ability (I’m reliably full-value, reasonably confident in my own slow ability) but social anxiety.  The early stages can be uncomfortable with riders in close proximity, but as groups form and people find their pace I usually get my own little space and settle in to riding alone.  Seeing people up on the road ahead, out of touch but a reminder of being on the same ride, is all I need.  In general I find audax psychologically beneficial on a longer timescale than the ride, and sometimes not during the ride at all.  It’s the sense of achievement, and in retrospect the shear bloodimindedness of it all, that I value. Some rides I hate the majority of the time I’m there (I won’t name the only one that I’ve resolved never to do again), but other times I do experience absolute joy in the moment. Like Leithen and his friends, once we sign up for a challenge something about the commitment keeps us going, no matter how foolhardy and indeed unnecessary it is.

cycling silhouette

So it was that I came to be emerging from my frosty tent on Selkirk leisure centre’s campsite one Saturday morning in March. There were no other campers and I had the newly refurbished facilities to myself, indeed I should have come in and slept in the warmth of the toilet block, but instead I wriggled into a down jacket and woolly hat at 4 am.

Selkirk campsite Selkirk campsite

After the past few weeks of cold and snowy weather which had resulted in a number of audaxes being cancelled and the innvocation of the ‘severe weather policy’ it was a pleasant surprise to see the sun. It was too late for the original route of this ride though. We were riding the ‘snow edition’, with the road from St Mary’s Loch over to Tweedsmuir remaining closed because of snow. We missed nothing though, this was a cracking route and that sun stayed out all day. There were a couple of ice patches in the morning where the road was in the constant shade so I could see how those high narrow roads could easily stay blocked for some time.

A708

Navigation was not demanding on this ride, and a good part of it was familiar. Essentially ‘left out of Selkirk sp Moffat, 53 km’ was the first section. The A708 is a great road, I’ve ridden it in the north west direction twice before so it was great to be going the other way – of course you see everything from the other side, but also the climbs where you can see the landscape more slowly are reversed. The sun was high enough and the road often on the southern side so that we were mostly riding in the sun. My left foot was quite happy but my right in the shade was still numb with the cold. The roads were in pretty awful condition in many places, here the problem was less large potholes but more the general overall lumpy surface. The route slowly climbs through snowdrop-filled Yarrow, then becoming more moorland.  The hills slowly closed in, but stilll the narrowing burn flowed down, down; back the way we had come.

St Marys Loch

Eventually the top arrived, and the border with Dumfries and Galloway. Here were a few patches of ice but I was happy enough that just going straight and braking in between them would avoid any problems, especially with the road quiet enough to move right out when needed.

Top of the Pass of Moffatdale

There were patches of snow on the hills all day and at the tops of the passes we rode alongside them. Keeping the right temperature was a balance all day long, climbing in the sun was warm but as soon as a shadows and descents appeared zips were pulled right up again.  Stretches of the road around Grey Mares Tail had been fully resurfaced recently and the previous vibrations were soon forgotten, although there were still a few lumps and after one I noticed a rubbing noise. I’m having an ongoing battle with rear mudguards and on stopping in Moffat I realised this was yet another break.  This is my third rear guard of the same type…what’s the definition of a fool, someone who keeps doing the same thing and hoping for a different outcome?  I think I should just switch to gaffer tape suspended by mudguards stays, which is more or less what I have now, albeit interspersed with bits of actual plastic.

Moffat was a trip to the Rumblin’ Tum, reliable as a quick provider of nice grub and possessor of a stamp. The controls were nicely spaced on this route, all about 50 km apart and before a climb. This climb was the Devils Beeftub (A701), local from my youth when I was fat and unfit, and being driven/driving up this way I always dreamt of riding up here one day. Having done this with 600 km in my legs on LEL I knew it would be fine, and it really is a great climb, on and on but never too steep.

Devil's Beeftub

Over the top and the road meets the start of the Tweed, to be followed now as far as Innerleithen. I thought about crossing it yesterday by train in Berwick, and wondered how long it would take the snow patches that were melting today to end up in the sea off the east coast.  We briefly cross Scotland’s watershed on this ride, which coincides with the regional borders around Moffat.  I wondered whether it would have been any different in Buchan’s day; probably not much, the snaking burn and road and the shape of the hills must be fairly unchanged.  The roads were still quiet, among the few cars passing I noticed a Bentley.  After a little while I met it again along with another car, stopped in the road, and realised there was a third in a low ditch on the other side. It had gone through a wall and was lying on its side with the windscreen smashed out. I stopped to see if I could help but they said they were fine, there was someone still in the car but they seemed to be engaged in banter with one of the others (“at least it’s not raining” etc) so I hoped that was a good sign. Soon after I set off an ambulance passed and then a couple of police cars.

Just before Broughton we turned off and I was now on unknown roads towards Peebles. There was a mountain bike event on, and I think full suspension would have been useful just for the road surfaces here. I was generally uncomfortable now and a little miserable, and looking forward to a stop in Innerleithen. I’d calculated that Melrose, the final control, would be too late at my speed for a cafe so wanted to sit down and have a warm drink here.  Some sort of cyclists’ gravity means that those of us who are slower needed to ride further to find a cafe with space, but the Whistle Stop Cafe was a nice find even if their till clock was running an hour fast on the receipt (stilll within time limits!). My back was sore, which I know is because I had done no core exercises recently, so I had some ibuprofen here (bad habit from LEL) and it was much better for the rest of the ride.

Out of Innerleithen and we were again on a bit of LEL. This had been the end of a beautiful stretch back then, and I remember how weird it was descending these deserted moorland hills to suddenly find a golf course. Again it was great to experience the roads in the opposite direction, and as the road climbed along the Leithen Water and the hills drew closer in I decided this is definitely one of my favourite roads.  The sun was sharp on the moorland hills and the roads empty, and I choked up a bit at the beauty of it all. It seems that the only thing that makes me cry these days is cycling and associated reminiscences.

Leithen Water Dewar Swyre

Then we turned off towards Heriot for an info control, before heading south for Stow. We followed the railway line for a while, which had brought me down yesterday and would take me away again tomorrow. This is the most ‘new’ (previously Beeching’d) railway line built for a considerable time, and if it didn’t exist I wouldn’t have been up here riding. Thanks to the Scottish government, and David Steele if I remember correctly.  So far the route had been steady climbs and descents but after Stow (unless going off piste which was an entirely reasonable option, good choice Lucy McTaggart) there was a shocker of a hill which had me cursing at the org at the top. Apparently this featured in the Scottish hill climbing championships in 2017. I soon forgave him as there were some great views here.  Passing a wind farm I heard the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh as the blades of a close mill rotated.  I’d heard similar before, unheralded, in the dark, but never before had I ridden through their shadows, racing towards and through the shadow of my bike going in the opposite direction.

Now we could see the Eildon hills above Melrose which would be visible for most of the rest of the ride. I got a bit confused with the route sheet (my confusion not the directions) and then there was a road closure but the guy working on it let me through and a local reassured me I was going in the right direction. I’d had a walk around here when I camped for last years Moffat toffee so once I could see the Chain Bridge I knew where I was going and headed straight for the Co-op, and crossed paths with Lucy. I’d done pretty well so far not to over-eat but here I had a sandwich and a big twix which I pretty instantly regretted; riding on a full stomach is never comfortable.

Eildon Hills Bridge over the Tweed

The final leg went out to another info which was a bit confusing as the route sheet described it as a T-junction, which did exist a bit further up the road. It took me a while further along the route to be convinced that I’d made the right choice. Lucy had left Melrose before me and arrived at the finish shortly after with an extra few kms so it seemed I had done. As usual the final 10 km seemed to go on forever but once again there was no navigation required so I didn’t bother with my head torch and so couldn’t see how far was still to go or how fast (or indeed slow) I was going, I just practised a bit of being in the present, which I’ve been working on recently. Keep going and you’ll get there. Sure enough almost out of nowhere a T-junction with the A7 appeared and there was the arrivee right next to it – I’m glad I was paying attention and didn’t sail on back down the hill to the town centre only to have to climb back up again, like a few others. Plenty of food at the finish which was great, and I did it in 11 hrs 30 which I was pleasantly surprised by.  Then a freewheel down to the campsite, shower and bed. I was quite happy that the clocks went forward as it meant one hour fewer in a frosty (again) tent before getting the first train to Edinburgh from Tweedbank the next morning.

John McNab

Leithen and his co-conspirators fully exercise and exorcise themselves in John MacNab.  Taking themselves out of their usual surroundings and putting themselves ‘in danger’ was sufficient to shift their minds.  I was actually surprised by the turns the story took in the later stages; [spolier] the recognition of friends and the security that their place in society provides (so not actually ‘danger’).  You can’t read John Buchan now without gagging on the racism, classism and misogyny, but this one has a strong female character and at least some self-awareness at the end.

It’s an over-simplification to suggest that feel bad -> go for an adventure (long bike ride) -> feel better always works.  Perhaps it’s rather that making myself do these things keeps a wolf from the door.

Scottish Borders 200 km map

207 km, average 21.6 kph, 9:42 hrs riding time; 11:30 total time

 

Mini-north west passage 120 km

17/02/18

Last year I did the longer (200 km) version of this ride; looking at the route is hard to believe it’s only an additional 85-ish km.  This was far more pleasant, starting and finishing in the light.  It was certainly long enough for me to be doing having not ridden anything long for sometime.

You need to be fairly confident riding in traffic for these rides as they are mostly A roads, and I did have a number of daft overtakes and close passes.  Eavesdropping on a conversation at the cafe control one bloke was saying that the 200 km is thought to be the oldest on the calendar and probably originated as a local club reliability ride pre-Audax UK (est. 1976), but no one remembers.  Certainly the roads would have been quieter then.

It was cold and wet at the start and riders were coming and going, some seemed to be on the 200 km (which started an hour earlier) and only just starting, so at 8.55 am I decided to get on with it rather than wait around.  Perhaps I missed some information about a road closure (which turned out to be passable by bike as is often the case) but I don’t know.  The route follows canal and railway line through Littleborough and Todmorden then head up to Holme Chapel and Clivinger, which is a nice section, the steep valley sides had a dusting of snow on the top.  Then through urban Burnley and Nelson before Blacko, where I stopped to take a photo for comparison with the last one.

Bike and signpost in Blacko Signpost in Blacko Bike in Blacko

The weather was backwards on this occasion, it got better as the day went on.  Over the highest point of the ride then down to Lisburn for an info control.  This was nice steady climbing.  Then a lower flat section, where a road closed sign blocked the route but I continued on and there was still half the road left (and no work being done at the time).  Unfortunately the road surface was littered with debris and I soon heard a noise coming from my front tyre.  I stopped just 3 km short of the control to find a piece of glass and a slowly bubbling tyre.  I don’t get many punctures so I’m not very fast at changing a tube.  I managed to break a tyre lever, and the roads weren’t very clean so I was spreading mud and probably worse over my hands and tights, but at least it wasn’t raining now.

Tyre levers

Eventually I got to the Country Cafe control in Waddington, recently visited on the Season of Mists.

Tea and pot

After this a nice profile of Pendle Hill is available when there is less cloud.  It did lift later.

Pendle Hill

Back over the Ribble and around the edge of Blackburn.  Here the route directs riders to turn right at a roundabout for the M65, which was horrible last year so I had spent a bit of time on google street view and found that I could cut it out by going along the towpath underneath (Leeds and Liverpool canal).  The sun was putting in an occasional appearance now and there had only been a few spot of rain (and hail) so I stopped to take off my waterproof and replaced it with a windproof gilet.  Up over Oswaldtwistle Moor, where I thought I might expire last time.  So much tamer in the sunlight and it was easier than I was expecting.  Another ‘highest point’ of the ride (303, 297 and 295 m peaks).

Oswaldtwistle Moor

Through Haslingden and Edenfield, then the final climb up to Ashworth Moor Reservoir.  I was looking forward to this as it had been one of the few highlights of last years ride.  It’s a nice road with good views but the overtaking traffic took some the enjoyment away, especially on the fast descent when a car came past into oncoming traffic then promptly turned left, causing me to brake.

On the last section through Rochdale I was unsure of a junction (named destination on route sheet wasn’t on the sign) but fortunately another rider appeared at the red light and said his GPS was indicating right.  Maybe this is where I went wrong last year.  We got separated at other lights further along (where a driver stopped and asked me if I would send my camera footage to the police if he went through the red light – I was able to reassure him he was quite safe as the thing on my helmet is a light, but the fact that it can be mistaken for a camera is no bad thing), but he kindly waited up ahead to make sure I was still on track.  The last few junctions were a repeat of my way in from the station but when I called a left (which cuts a little corner off) he decided to go with his GPS so I arrived a couple of minutes before him.

Howard, which his name turned out to be, and I both took advantage of the veggie pie and peas option laid on for finishers at the pub.

Pie and peas

Back to the station and there was some very nice light on the hills we’d just come over, and the last of it did its best to make Rochdale look appealing.

Bike at Rochdale station

Establishment-names of the ride: Fecit Farm, and Only Foals and Horses stables.

Mini-north west passage route

122 km, 7 hrs 32 mins, average 9.9 kph

Peculiar Old 200 km

28/10/17

I had some quite bad head stuff going on during this ride so I haven’t written it up properly. It was a corker though. Incidentally that Snickers lasted me up until Melrose on the Scottish Borders Randonnee (24/03/18) at which point I chucked it in the bin because I’d had a vomiting-incident a few data before after over-consumption of peanuts.

Very strong easterly wind, the leg from Fishburn to Middleton was right into it, lucky not to be blown off.  According to People Who Know we are talking 35 mph: https://www.windfinder.com/report/copley/2017-10-28. Some nice tailwinds after that.

Langleydale, Middleton-In-Teesdale Langleydale, Middleton-In-Teesdale Lunch in Middleton

River Tees, Whorlton River Tees, Whorlton Signpost

Peculiar Old route

200 km, 11 hrs 45

2016 – 2017 audax season

17/10/17

At the start of the season I got back in the saddle with a hilly 50 km.  Entering LEL in January got me planning training rides, ideally doing a Super Randonneur series (SR; 200, 300, 400 and 600 km rides in a season) in preparation.

LEL training graph

After a real struggle on an early 200 km I finally got back to the ranks of Randonneur on my 40th birthday, in the amazing surroundings of Mull.

Birthday cake and champagne

After that everything was progress, my first 300 km was splendid but definitely ‘type 2’, the second much more manageable.

Route map of 300 km Beyond the dales we know and Wigginton rides in Yorkshire

A 400 km was my first experience of riding through the night, and became a real slog toward the end; finishing with around half an hour to spare was a bit too close for my liking.  A 600 km pre-LEL wasn’t to be (twice), so I found myself at the start feeling inexperienced, amongst other things.  But LEL, even un-finished, proved to be an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience (even if I do it again I’m sure that first time will never be matched).  It was a real shift in my psyche, although it’s been a challenge to maintain.

JJ start, LEL Innerleithen hills sketch Climbing Yad Moss Peter and Erica at Brampton LEL brevet card

I thought I might have had more than enough of cycling for a while afterwards but that proved not to be the case, and I was keen to at least get my SR award this season.  Well, it didn’t happen, but I thoroughly enjoyed Blackpool-Glasgow-Blackpool nonetheless.

Blackpool Tower

Post-LEL I still have numbness in the thumb and first two fingers on each hand, and the left is pretty pathetic in terms of strength and dexterity.  I plan to get a bike fit (and possibly ahem a new different bike) once I get properly back in the saddle.  I did lower my saddle a little to try and prevent the recurrence of Achilles tendon pain (so far so good), and rotated the bars forwards slightly to try and keep my wrists linear while on the hoods.  There’s no way to tell if the latter has helped while I have continuing numbness, I just hope I haven’t caused any more damage.  I know nerves take a long time to heal.

I’m managing a few rides early this season but November will bring a challenge of a different kind with more surgery and the mind (and fitness) -rotting recovery that accompanies it.  The nature of it is such that I don’t know when I’ll be able to get back on the bike, and it might be best to try and get my final operation done as soon as possible afterwards and have an extended pause rather than off-on-off-again.  If I can help out at some rides during this time I’d love to.

I found some great software to create a heat map at https://erik.github.io/derive/.

2016-2017 heat map

Points: 14

AAA: 7.5

Distance (actual ridden, including DNFs): 5013 km (3053 miles)

 

Blackpool – Glasgow – Blackpool…no SR for me…

22/09/17

Train to Blackpool; at Hebden Richard gets on and squeezes his bike in the passageway, this being one of the refurbished northern trains with a bizarre bike enclosure where two bikes can barely be properly contained, and there is no flexibility to add a third. Still at least the train staff don’t seem to mind. We get into Blackpool in plenty of time, I had planned on twiddling my thumbs in the station waiting for HQ to open but it’s fairly deserted and we head straight to Bispham Community Centre and discover we’re not the first to arrive. Plenty of time for faffing, tea, and an ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter’ sandwich.

At 10 pm we start, the group of twenty-something staying together for a little while, setting a fast* pace. I soon find myself at the rear and concentrate on following the person in front as I think we’ve detoured from the routesheet and I’ll be screwed if I get lost. Me and the person in front are going at a similar speed, and after a while I become aware of a light behind. A late starter? It turns out to be Richard who must have taken a slightly different route. He and the chap in front (who I realise must be on fixed going by his downhill cadence) settle together at a speed slightly above me, but remain in reassuring sight for a while. At one point I am sure we are about to witness a smash; a car begins to overtake me on a blind corner, I’m far enough around it to see there’s a breakdown truck coming the other way. Surely it’s going to plough right into the front of it?…I brake, the truck brakes, and the car squeezes through between the two in front and the truck, and speeds off to live another day. But not many more driving like that. It takes a while for my adrenalin to subside.

I stop to turn my route sheet over can see the pair in front no longer. After Kendal it’s a long but steady climb up and over Shap summit. I try to use the big ring on a rare dip but the chain comes off so I pull in at a farm entrance to replace it. I’d just replaced all my cables but hadn’t had enough ‘breaking in’ time, and they behave rather differently on a stand than when used in anger. I’m worried about it coming off the other side as well so as it turns out I don’t use the smallest cog the whole ride – there are no really steep sections and in fact the worst turns out to be going up to Dalruscan from the A701 when I went off-piste for a sleep.

Going up and up the A6 and there are only a couple of vehicles. It starts getting misty. I have no idea where I am relative to the summit, and stop in a lay-by to have a drink of water (descending the next day I spot the lay by and realise this was almost the top). It is thick fog here now. I am aware somehow of a steep drop to my left. There is a patch of world illuminated in front of me by my light, and a feeble red glow at the rear, but behind that absolute nothingness. I am aware that I exist only in this tiny impenetrable world, and no one else is aware of my existence.

I move off again and soon the fog thins and the pedaling gets easier. Was that the top? I have no way of knowing. I am enjoying night riding this time; in contrast to sections of twisty minor roads, on this A road I can see further ahead, there are white lines and cats eyes, and even the occasional car, and we have mutual and advanced awareness of each other. I love my water bottle glowing in the light of my headtorch like a G&T under UV, and the tiny fireworks that drops of water form as they spray off the front wheel under the headlight.

The first control is Penrith, and I stop at an Esso garage where a few others are.  They seem to have had almost all of the sandwiches already, so I opt for crips and coke. The very friendly guy working there has learnt all the rules of audax by the time I approach the till and I have no need to ask for a receipt.

Riding through the centre of Penrith I recognise it slightly from my JOG trip, and especially the climb out of town where the peaks of the lakes would be visible in the daylight.  It’s a short stage to the next control, a 24 hour Asda on the northern edge of Carlisle. This being England, 24 hour in fact means that it closes some time on Saturday evening and has to keep Sunday hours before opening again early Monday morning. It seems I’ve already lost track of what day it is, and reading the opening hours expect it to be closed. One of what becomes the advance party is sitting on a mobility chair waiting for the others, fearing they have become lost in the hugeness of the supermarket. He reassures me that it is open, and I remember that it is early (5 am) Saturday not Sunday. I go in search of what I would really like, which is coffee and a croissant, but it’s a bit too early for the bakery counter so I come away with a sandwich and flapjack. The supermarket is occupied almost entirely by staff, filling the shelves.  Later another rider says we should have just ridden around the aisles. There is a guy in front of me at the till who is clearly plastered, buying a litre of vodka. The only other customer is a Stobart driver, who during the course of my conversation with the checkout-assisting member of staff (fortunately she reminds me I need my receipt, which I am on the verge of forgetting) comments that buying food in Abington services, the next control, is best avoided for financial reasons. The others have left so I take my place on a mobility scooter seat and enjoy my sandwich.

Sitting on a mobility car in a supermarket

Leaving, the birds have started but it’s still pretty dark. The road out of Carlisle is familiar but only as a busy car queue, one of the main routes in and out of the centre. Now it’s deserted. This section is familiar from my trip to JOG, and I stop once again at the Welcome to Scotland sign.

Welcome to Scotland, Gretna

After Gretna we’re on a section of the LEL route, it seems strange to be here again. It’s proper dawn now and I keep looking behind me to see the growing glow of the emerging sun. Again (after LEL) I notice a splendid tower/castle and make a mental note to look at a map and work out what it is, I think it’s Robgill Tower but I’ll look into it properly. Soon we go through Lockerbie and I make a point of going through the town centre just because I know it and I can. Then it’s the tortuous B7066 to Beattock; featureless apart from the road surface, which has way too many features, every centimetre or two…the only consolation here was that I knew I wouldn’t have to take the same route going south.

A mental switch happens at the Beattock roundabout where the route shrugs its shoulders and settles in for the journey north, along the valley which is shared by the M74 and the west coast main line. I love this corridor, it’s familiar but enchanting.  I always like riding routes that I’ve worn well by car or train, to experience them at the ‘proper’ speed of the bicycle is to properly enjoy them, and the next time I’m passing on the train or the motorway I’ll be eagerly looking out of the window and saying ‘I cycled along that road’ to any unsuspecting travelling companions.

Beattock summit

Somewhere along here we pass the house I vaguely remember from LEL with the wooden orang-u-tan in the garden. It’s a bizarre marker of the worst road surfaces. At Abington I catch up with the advance party, which turns out to be a pattern over the next few controls. Being cheap (remembering the advice of the driver in Carlisle) I opt for a filter coffee and this turns out to be an expert move as the waiting time is much reduced, and I’m most of the way through my fruity toast before Richard’s latte appears. The effect of a proper stop and food should not fail to be appreciated, I felt at my best just after this stop here and on the return leg.  I leave alone feeling slow, although I see Robbie (who I met at the start) and riding partner arriving just as I go.

After a little while I’m not too far behind another rider, but never too close. We flirt with the cycle path, constantly checking whether it or the road offers the most comfortable ride. Faithfulness is impossible until after Lesmahagow, where a splendid new section has been laid and can be committed to. Slowly civilisation builds, and eventually the route becomes a string of traffic lights, often challenging as ‘straight on’ requires taking the right lane.

Glasgow is another Asda, in Toryglen – a less likely name for an area of this part of the country I cannot imagine. The advance party are here when I arrive, and leave before me. It’s around 13.30. A couple of local boys ask about the ride and I do my best to enthuse them, one of them tells me about his wheelie expertise so I bow to his greater skill. I feel no great achievement at this point, it’s just a case of turn around and get on with it.

The next control is Abington again, so onwards and upwards. On the climb out of Glasgow I start to feel very strange, disconnected from myself. My body is doing all the right things, my legs keep pedalling as I know they will, and even my head is processing the routesheet instructions as if on autopilot. In part this is good, because I’m sufficiently spaced out that any pain or discomfort goes almost unnoticed.

But I don’t really like it.  I remember a conversation at the start where someone talked about singing, so I try that. Now I can’t sing at the best of times, and now I’m out of breath and I realise I don’t know enough words, but it is more or less doing the trick and I feel more normal. It only works when I’m at least mouthing, if not singing the words out loud; just humming a chorus isn’t good enough. I discover that I really don’t know all the words to anything, but the best I can do, and so becomes my repertoire, are: Bread and Roses, Dream a Little Dream, and No Children. I resolve to properly learn these and others for future reference.

I see other bikes at Abington, but not their owners until they leave. A visit to Burger King takes a bit longer than I’d like but it’s worth it for something warm eaten sitting down. Down to Beattock, some of this stage is nice and fast. Here I leave the route and stay on the A701 towards Dumfries, to my parents house.  I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this road as the traffic can be fast and it isn’t that late, but taking the back roads involved too much faffing and risking wrong turnings in the dark. It’s ok and goes by fairly quickly. After the traffic lights at St Ann’s three deer run along on the other side of the road, going my way, before jumping over into the field. The turning off presents the steepest hill of the ride and it’s a fair honk up without my smallest chain ring. Then the nice descent home, it’s 8.30 pm and my parents are away so the place is in darkness and deserted. Not even the cat appears. This is good because I don’t want her to sneak in and then to spend my precious time-in-hand chasing her out again. The aga is on so I take off my damp bits (there has been a bit of light rain, but it’s mostly just general sweat and outdoor sogginess) and hang them up. I’d planned to just get a blanket and sleep on a sofa but I see the bed that my mum has made up and decide I can’t resist, so climb in as soon as I can with my alarm set for 12.30 am, having calculated that I need to leave at 1 am to make the next control before cut-off. As soon as I hit the pillow my brain stars whizzing, and although I fall asleep fairly quickly even my dreams are busy.

Clothes drying

The alarm goes and I jump out of bed before I can reconsider. I try to be as quick as possible with a cup of tea and bowl of muesli but still leave a little later than planned. It’s warmer than I was expecting and I have to stop and remove a layer at one point. The little roads to Lochmaben are of course deserted at this time in the morning, and the A709 to Lockerbie is very quiet (again I wouldn’t fancy it during the day). A bonus of my detour is that I miss the tortuous B7068, and it probably brings the route over 600 km: Andy Corless the org had struggled to convince the good people of AUK that his original route was over distance and so had been forced to give us a little detour into Longtown to make it up, which of course I still had to take, but maybe next time I could offer to run the ‘rents place as a control?!

In Longtown the petrol station (of an LEL visit) is long closed but I spot a slightly dodgy looking cash machine on the outside of a nearby shop, and obtain my proof of passage. I don’t normally look at them but this time I glance at the place and time info, and am surprised to see I’m 6 minutes over time at the control (3.26 am). The last stage hasn’t felt fast but I didn’t think it was that bad…maybe my calculations were wrong. I’m not sure how fussy Andy, or AUK would be about this sort of thing, but I am already formulating my excuses (mainly centring around the very last minute route info – I was laminating my routesheets at work at 4 pm before the 10 pm start).  I see another rider, going the wrong way so I assume he is searching out the cash machine, but when I turn back to wave he has already disappeared.

Now it’s off to Carlisle, I’m happy that we don’t just retrace the last little bit because I always hate doing that (…ok, it’s an out and back route, but that’s not quite the same), just follow the A7. No need to control in Carlisle so the next stop is Penrith. After we cross the motorway I spot another rider (igauk from yacf I think) and pass him as he stops. There’s a bit of a climb before we get to Penrith; the traffic is sparse. The sky is clear now and I tilt the brim of my cap up so I get a better view of the stars. I’m getting sleepy, try a bit more singing and also slapping myself in the face. Focus on Penrith as a nap stop – maybe there will be somewhere to sit and nod off at the petrol station? Back after leaving Longtown I spotted a couple of randonneur-occupied bus shelters, but there is nothing here; each lay-by has a bus stop sign but nothing else.  That is until I approach one and notice a large black object in shadow at the far end of the layby, possibly in the adjacent field…maybe a bit of farm machinery? Suddenly it’s alive, a glowing, sparkling almost, white dragon…so vivid, believable and disturbing until the last minute when I pass it and it resolves itself into a tree, illuminated by the headlights of a passing car. The shock of realisation wakes me up for a while, and I’m a little pleased that I’ve had my first audax hallucination.

Glowing dragon

A while later and I’m sleepy again, when my steering feels odd. I’m just passing an isolated house so I stop and take advantage of their outside light. My front tyre is soft, but not flat, so I pump it up and hope it will get me to the Penrith control where I can change the tube. Again this wakes me up and I get to the edge of town, but then it’s suddenly very flat and I have no control, so stop annoyingly short of the petrol station and sort it out. Checking the tyre for sharps I discover that it’s actually worn through at a spot, so deploy an emergency boot of section of old inner tube plus gaffer tape. I can’t have refitted the wheel very well because now I have a rubbing brake.  Clearly I’ve also done a shit job on the brake cables, as the straddle cable on the canti is simultaneously slack and almost too tight to use the quick release. Sunrise and daylight happens while I’m fiddling, I turn off my head torch part way through.

At the petrol station I meet igauk again, he’s almost ready to leave. Chatting it turns out that he lives in Glasgow, so he’s driven to Blackpool, cycled home for a few hours kip and is now cycling back to his car…we are an hour out of time by this point but he needs to get back to the arrivee for his car whatever, and I reckon there is enough time for him to get there within the cut-off. There’s a costa machine so I enjoy a hot coffee and a sandwich while considering my options. In theory I should be able to cover the remaining 100 km in time, but I’m not sure how I would stand with the out-of-time controls, and I know that theory doesn’t always hold up when you’ve hundreds of kms in your legs and you’ve had less than four hours sleep over the past two nights. Also the way my bike is feeling at the moment I would have no confidence in going much further. As an extra minor irritation my bike computer (cheap Halfords cable model bought in an ’emergency’ come time ago) has stopped, reading 499 km.  Penrith has a main line train station, and I’ve learnt my lesson and haven’t left anything in Blackpool so I could head straight home (but this may be expensive). Igauk leaves, and I remove and refit my front wheel, taking a bit more care to tighten both side nuts evenly. It spins without rubbing on the brake blocks. How about the tyre boot, will that hold? I realise that, after LEL, I have a strong desire to complete the distance even if I’ll be out of time. And I have all of today, Sunday (it’s currently 7 am), to get home, plus Monday off work. It’s also a gorgeous morning, and I’ve got a ride that takes me through upland England…it would be daft to miss out.

I decide to press on, and see how the tyre and wheel feels; if it’s no good I can just head back to Penrith. I’m now resigned to ‘tour’ back, and I stop in a layby to let Andy know I’ll be a DNF, but the theoretical possibility that I can still finish on time stops me sending the text message. But I’m clearly in touring mode as I stop to photograph the hills to the east, I reckon Yad Moss must be in there somewhere.

Pennines from Penrith - Shap road

I’m also tired again, so I stop in Shap to make use of the facilities: recently repainted interior, stone flagged floor, wooden bench, east facing so some nice morning sun but a little noisy from passing traffic and pedestrians. No buses. This time I do send Andy a message to tell him not to wait for me, especially as his hire of the hall in Blackpool only lasts until 8 am so he’ll be sitting in his car waiting for the stragglers after that.

Next it’s the climb over Shap Fell, with its warning road signs about bad conditions in winter. I think this is my favourite bit of the ride. I’m piecing together my experiences of the way north on the previous day (or day before, who knows at this point) in the dark and the fog, with the clear daylight and the views that are here now. It could be another world, but in time I spot the place I stopped, isolated from the world by fog. The road is quiet, the views are splendid, the hillsides wild, just as I like them.

View from Shap Fell, east View from Shap Fell, south

Over the moorland top, down into the next valley it seems like another world. This is the descending I like, the road is safely wide with good visibility. Then through Kendal, where I lose touch a little with the routesheet but following signs is good enough and I’m soon on the way to Carnforth. Here the control is at a truck stop, and I no longer bother to ask for a receipt. The woman running the shop is friendly and talkative, it doesn’t sound like she’s had that many of us through (not sure of this is because they came through earlier before her shift started, or they have stopped elsewhere) but she seems unfazed by the oddness of the enterprise.

I leave a little uncomfortable and tired, for the final section. Navigating through Lancaster poses a couple of problems but it is me at fault. At one point I just don’t have the energy to move across a couple of lanes of traffic to take the correct position at some lights, so stop and go via a pedestrian crossing. Then I turn too early, resulting in catching up with the chap who I spotted in the darkness of Longtown. It turns out that he’d missed the final version of the routesheets, so had passed Longtown then somehow learnt that it was a control and so headed back, doing an extra 30 km in the process. Now he’s going much faster than me so after a brief chat and some encouragement that he can get back in time I leave him to it.

The last section, as almost always, is a struggle.  It’s now normal-people’s daytime and the road is busy.  I experience the highest concentration of shit driving ever, with so many close passes including someone who seems to be attempting to shave my legs with their wing mirrors. A couple of cars have stopped at the side of the road and seem to be doing the exchanging-insurance-details thing, which comes as no surprise. This is a flat section and I’m unpleasantly reminded of the LEL Fens. Similarly tired now I take a turn off for some villages near Pilling – or maybe Preesall? –  to have a snooze on a bench next to a bus stop sign (very poor accommodation but it’s dry and the sun shines on my face).

On the final stretch to Blackpool I start to follow signs for the seafront rather than the routesheet, and finally get there about 3 pm, an hour later than the arrivee closure. In some ways this is better than I thought, probably without the flat tyre and with a little more effort I could have finished in time. But I didn’t, so I haven’t managed an SR. That was my aim, but I’m not too upset, and happy that I pressed on and at least finished the distance. I turns out that Blackpool on a Sunday afternoon – during illuminations season but too early for the lights – is a bit weird. I get some chips and a cup of tea near the tower, and eavesdrop on the conversation of the lad serving and his two mates loitering for free food; it sounds like a tough place to grow up.

Blackpool seafront Blackpool Tower

Heading back to the train station for home I have trouble locating the entrance, and a woman passing notices my confused expression and offers help; so I am reminded of the friendliness of northerners, even towards the Lycra-clad.

* or ‘relaxed’, as another rider’s account described it. Bastard.

Blackpool - Glasgow- Blackpool route

618 km, 41 hours

London-Edinburgh-London

Prologue

Saturday 5th August

4 pm, bumming around in London

Struggling to write.  Manual dexterity poor, numbness in fingertips and swollen hands. Knees painful when sitting.  Feet swollen, ankles swollen and painful, going up stairs is worst.  Sleep deprived.  Sadness to have stopped before the end, proud of 1350 km.  Tears and embraces still with me.  Landscapes, weather, experiences…trying to fit them together to make a coherent story in my head.

In other words I feel alive.  It really has been, and I hope continues to be, a life-changing experience.  At the start, to feel as entitled to be there as anyone else. So many different nationalities, strategies, bikes, speeds, luggage…but united.

The week leading up to LEL was one of the hardest in my life…it seems flippant to say that from this more comfortable position but it really felt like that.  I’d come off anti-depressants a few months previously after around 5 years; at the time I was feeling ok and didn’t want to be taking medication for ever.  Slowly I started to feel different.  First the sudden unexpected choke of threatened tears where they hadn’t been before.  Then the slow rising tide of depression, taking motivation, time, joy, ambition and enthusiasm, including for LEL.  I was existing, but not living.

I’d had quite a good plan of training rides, made in the enthusiasm of January, which should have taken me up to a 600 km, if not two.

LEL training graph

A few were missed due to unavoidable life stuff (including a brick through my living room window while I was en route to what should have been my first 300 km).  I made myself do rides I had planned but more and more was finding anxiety being surrounded by others and tried to avoid people as much as I could.  Please don’t speak to me, don’t make me engage, don’t force me to flick the heavy switch that smiles.

 

Sunday 6th August

11.50 am, on the train home to Leeds

A 400 km completed brought little joy.  I arrived lantern rouge with 10 mins to spare having had a puncture and being lost a couple of times in towns.  I finished in a bit of a bad mood I think, with no time to sleep before the hall HQ was closing and I had to leave for a train home.  That ride was a lone battle through the night, my first to see light go and dawn come.  I felt so slow during the night stage, but there was nothing other to do than to keep going.  So easily spooked by shadows.  Eventually daylight and a service station, a few words with a group of three who’d been a bit ahead of me the whole time, then they were gone again.

The 600 km – again, into the hall and pick up my brevet card, lay out the bed, then go away and hide to be alone until it’s a suitable time to sleep.  The ride starts and people settle.  I’m alone but plenty of others visible, and I being to relax.  This brings on a migraine (my usual trigger is the relief of stress) which causes me to pack at 100 km, being unable to see properly.

One more chance, another 600 km; this one I’ve spent a bit on travel and accommodation for.  Again no great desire or motivation, I just make myself get to the start because I have to.  This is x-rated and I’m inexperienced.  I’ve got a bivvy bag on my rack because I knew I wouldn’t have time to make proper use of a Travelodge along the way.  Devon, Somerset, Bath, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire…crossing hills under a June sun which is logically beautiful but in my state of mind that was alll it was, I wasn’t enjoying it and had no passion.  I fixed a broken mudguard with duck tape and cursed Oxfordshire Council’s road resurfacing programme.  Discomfort, tiredness…never quit until you’ve had a cup of tea and a sit down I’ve been told.  A coke and a park bench on a nice village green at 220 km would do.  I could pack.  I COULD pack.  I don’t have to do this.  If I pack it’ll be the end for LEL.  I could volunteer.  Ok, I’ve given up LEL.  A strange calmness comes over me: regret and release.

A few days later; rational brain.  I’ve got my train tickets and camping in Loughton all sorted and paid for.  No one else can benefit from my place at this late stage. I spend a lot of time reading threads on yacf.  I’d sent Peter a message when I packed the 600 km and he does a great job by not encouraging me to volunteer.  I persuade myself to start, and this causes lots of stress as I consider the bike maintenance required; new mudguards (I really can’t start LEL with duck tape holding everything together), brake blocks, swapping front/rear tyres which of course involves valve damage and a flat, last minute saddle change, running out of time to fit new cables…yes my headset needs attention…this takes hours and hours and I get frustrated (as always) by the slow progress of this amateur mechanic.  Also up against time preparing route sheets, etc.  Meanwhile work is a never-ending stream of emails and requests, I manage to spend an afternoon trying to get on top of things but they are coming in faster than I can reply to, never mind actually attend to.  Management are ineffectual and I feel alone.  See my GP and discuss pros and cons of going back on medication – it would be long term and I don’t want that.  Investigate other options, and not for the first time I am struck by the gap between crisis services and talking therapies with a 3 month wait.  Nothing for the in-between space where I am.  Hate being at work but I don’t want to be signed off, I know that wouldn’t really help.  Even in these last few days, as I see photos on Facebook of riders coming to London from all over the world, I am not sure whether I’ll actually make it to the start.  I am only just getting myself out of bed and into work, how am I going to motivate myself to keep going in the dark, in the rain, uphill, in the middle of nowhere?

I get through that last week, though not without a recurrence of self-harm.  I’d been ‘clean’ over two years.  It provides about 24 hours of stillness.  At some point I seem to make my mind up; yes, I will travel to Loughton. I want to experience the atmosphere, and I actually start looking forward to registration.

Leeds train station

And then I’m there.  I see a few people I know but avoid speaking to them.  At the start I see and eventually speak to a couple of riders I know; we’ve done several of the same build-up rides.  I watch several starts.  A bloke in civvies speaks to me, he has just come down to wish people well and see them off, he doesn’t know anyone in particular.  This is humbling.  As my start time approaches I send a hurried email to my family with the tracking link.  They know I’m doing this but not much about it.  I’ve deliberately not shared the tracking link before now, not mentioned that I’m doing LEL on Facebook, not ordered a jersey, not ordered a yacf nameplate…it takes until registration for me to feel that I’m actually allowed to be here; eventually it seems that we are all in this together.

 

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack, in everything
That’s how the night gets in

Anthem, Leonard Cohen.

 

Log

Sunday 30th July

11.38 am: T – 03:30

The wait. Hours yesterday after registration, first in a coffee shop in Theydon Bois then later, when the rain had properly set in, in the tent, reading a newspaper until it was a respectable bed time.

Coffee in Theydon Bois

A thunderstorm in the night. No need to get up early but awake and no desire to lie in after about 7.30 am. Some riders were on their way by now, the tent and bike next to me already gone. Now, after a morning trip to Loughton to find a Costa (reliably open on Sunday mornings), which was nice as I saw lots of riders heading to the start, I’m sitting in the tent wondering whether it’s too early for me to go yet.

Debden campsite

Everything is ready, my towel has even dried after a shower, all that remains is the application of Conotrane. Two German JJ riders opposite (same start group as me) have just left although they are still in civvies so not sure where they are going to. It’s sunny and breezy, a some clouds.

1:05 pm, at the start

Checking out the bikes: so far one Brompton, another Hewitt, recumbents, only one tandem as yet (although saw a trike this morning), an old Raleigh with a large plastic water bottle with a tube up to the bars, French one with gorgeous lugs, Californian Carbon with couplings…watching the groups starting, still far enough away from my start to be too nervous so maybe should eat before appetite is lost.

Bikes at the start of LEL Bikes at the start of LEL The start of LEL

 

Loughton – St Ives 100 km

JJ start, LEL

I can’t remember much about the first stage.  The starting group fragmented a little but I think a few of us rode pretty much together most of the way.  I remember a French chap in front, and a Japansese guy just behind my wheel quite a lot.  Somewhere along here we crossed the Greenwich Meridian which I think is marked by a sign, but I missed it. The weather was mostly good.

I came into the control just behind this fully-faired recumbent, which was entertaining just from the reactions of spectators.

Recumbent cycle approaching Louth control

100 km

 

St Ives – Spalding 61 km

Got to Spalding earlier than expected, the last stage was fast with a tailwind, and it turned out to be a nice evening after a bit of a downpour on the previous leg [Ed: these notes were made at the time, I have no recollection of this now!].

Near Louth

Through Crowland with its curious three-legged bridge; I didn’t stop to take a photo because it was inhabited by 16 year olds drinking cider (or whatever 16 year olds drink these days) and I’m easily intimidated.

I planned to sleep here and did so, figuring the beds would be full at Louth.  I got up at 2.30 to leave at 3.00.  I met Rickie in the dining hall, he’d already had the disaster of a sheared pedal axle, had managed to get home and get either a replacement bike or axle (not clear which) and get back on track. Pretty sure I’d have taken any excuse to quit, where some people take any opportunity not to.

Food in the evening wasn’t wonderful, but the volunteers were, and there were breakfasts.  Plenty of bed space and it was well organised.  My first experience of being woken and I surprised myself by being ‘happy’ to get straight up and get on with it.

161 km

Loughton - Spalding route

 

 

Monday 31st July

Spalding – Louth 83 km

This was a nice morning’s ride and a good time to start out, seeing the light come into the day.  This type of landscape is unfamiliar; the map shows no contours and roads and rivers travel in straight lines and take 90° turns.  For the only time on the ride this section was deserted, I only met one other rider and that was because he’d been sent back on himself by his Garmin.  More owls than cyclists.

Early morning near Louth

Looked forward to a second breakfast at Louth.  Got one of maybe three remaining portions of past-its-best porridge, and black tea because they’d run out of milk.  This was the only time I was disappointed by a control; I’ve since read about issues with the external contractor.  There were a few folk sleeping on the floor in the dining hall, so presumably all the beds were full. The weather forecast was on display on wall-mounted monitors – nice touch – and it looked good.

244 km

 

Louth – Pocklington 97 km

The Humber Bridge was the highlight of this section.  I felt like I was missing a line or two on the route sheet, or I took a wrong turning coming off the bridge, but little-recumbent-guy (who I saw quite a lot of over this day or two) showed me the way.  This photo is me doing my best Arnold Rimmer face.

Humber Bridge Humber Bridge

Before the bridge there were Wolds.  I dislike Wolds.

341 km

 

Pocklington – Thirsk 66 km

This section included Castle Bastard, in the Bastardian Hills.  I have ridden this before but it still feels stupid [Ed: I seem to have included this in my highlights. How fickle.]

Howardian Hills

Notes I made on arrival at Thirsk: Feet are uncomfortable but not as bad as the hot thing I had on the Exe-Buzzard. Thought I’d try some ibuprofen (and perhaps it will help with everything else). Saddle sores seem present when I clean but they are actually not too bad on the bike. Wipes and Conotrane at every control.  The mechanics seem busy, just saw someone come in with an armful of tyres. On this stage I met a guy waiting on a verge whose frame had cracked. I guess you can be prepared for the likely, but carrying a spare frame is beyond even audax levels of self-sufficiency.  There was some writing on the road here including ‘half way to Edinburgh’.  Which I found very welcome, but also thought I might swear at it on the way back, if I got that far.
Either I’ve seen one of the first riders on the return journey or it was someone packing.

By Thirsk I’d ridden further than before.  Didn’t really seem to register.

407 km

 

Thirsk – Barnard Castle 67 km

I thought more of this would be familiar than it was, but nevertheless it was nice to go past Newby Wiske with memories of my first 300 km.  I rode quite a bit of this leg with Osian; nice chatting and it certainly helps the kms go by, though I find it impossible to concentrate on the route sheets at the same time.  Osh’s knee was looking pretty bad and he had a chat with the control Doc (Barney had TLC you would never have imagined); of course medical advice on most complaints would be to stop, which no one wants to do.  His plan involved quite different sleep stops than mine and he set off again, while I headed to the big sports hall for a few hours sleep.  There was plenty of space here and I was given mattress on the far edge, next to some gym mats so I even had a nice surface to do a couple of yoga stretches on.  I’ve done this when touring and it’s really nice to get your spine in a different position for a few minutes after being on the bike all day.  On LEL I intended to do this before sleeping, I managed in Spalding (all-be-it without gym mats) and here but after that it went out of the window.

I had looked forward to seeing controllers Erica and Peter and daughter Vic at Barney, who I met when volunteering on WCW (Windsor-Chester-Windsor) a couple of years back.  Familiar faces and their welcome were heartwarming.  I think son Jamie had the pleasure of waking me up next morning – it’s a brave job to be rousing sleeping randonneurs.  I got on the road again about 3.30 am, a great time just as light was appearing.

472 km

Spalding - Barnard Castle route

 

Tuesday 1st August

Barnard Castle – Brampton 82 km

A lovely start, at first dark and undulating.  Impressions of a beautiful valley but more light would be needed to fully appreciate it.  Caught up with Union Jack tights-guy (another name I’ve forgotten, sorry) and chatted for a while.  I arrived at a later control around the same time as he did, to hear a volunteer helping him with ‘this is Moffat and it’s Tuesday’.  Pressed on over Yad Moss as colours came into the sky; I rather enjoyed this but don’t tell anyone.

Yad Moss Yad Moss

Enjoyed some free-wheeling down the other side, not before the rain started and riders coming passed stopped too, to don waterproofs.  I rode with Maryjane from the Isle of Man for a while, also a lab tech and also riding a Hewitt; we arrived at Brampton together but I lost her in the bike park and didn’t see her again.

I had a shower and a change of clothes from my drop bag; I probably spent too long here but a shower really does make you feel human again.  I hadn’t thought about the changing rooms which were the typical UK school set-up which means no privacy; why are they like this when the rest of life isn’t?  Happily under these circumstances I think most people would be a bit preoccupied with their own thoughts.

There was a covered area to hang up wet stuff, I think some things were pegged up on the way north-bound in the hope they’d be dry coming south.  Shout out to the volunteers here: a very patient german guy in the bag drop and the chap mopping the shower room.

566 km

 

Brampton – Moffat 71 km

The direct road from Gretna to Moffat is soul-destroying; featureless apart from the road surface, which has too many features (I’ve done this on JoG and I’m also sort of local so I knew it was just a case of head down and keep pedalling).  I stopped at Lockerbie Tesco for some emergency food that I thought I might want later, and ibuprofen, which I had by now started taking two of at every control: I’d never done this before, and would only do so again on this kind of ride.  A few others stopped here, including a German rider who offered me some chain oil. This was one thing I wasn’t too worried about as I’d put a new chain on and it was still luxuriating in the stuff it came in.  Still, it’s probably the only time I’ll be offered lube by a german woman.

Brampton - Moffat Moffat LEL control

630 km

 

Moffat – Edinburgh 80km

Riding this stretch of the A701 really was a childhood dream come true.  So often had I been driven (and latterly driven myself) up here and imagined bicycle adventures…I spent too long at university in St Andrews and home was just off this road some 10 miles south of Moffat, but I could never have entertained such long distance riding then.  The first section was a bit unpleasant but after that I just settled in a lowish gear and took it easy, plodding away.  The weather was nice at the top.  It isn’t always of course; somewhere up here is a memorial to two postal workers who died after being caught in a blizzard.

Devil's beeftub Devil's beeftub

Then such a long freewheel I forgot that I could pedal for a while, until some folk sped past me.  Then those familiar places; Broughton, Blyth Bridge, Romano Bridge…eventually a turn-off to new roads at Leadburn.  Now the approaching rain was gaining on us.  All day it had been on/off, short sharp showers which could be ‘ignored’, but it was clear that this one meant business.

Pentland Hills, Edinburgh

After some horrible road surfaces coming into Edinburgh the route took a cycle path where I followed one of the Elliptigo gang; I could see why he was wearing a helmet – all those overhanging branches.  I was happy to see Raj leaving the control just as I arrived, he seemed be going well.  Osian was here too and we ended up riding a bit of the next section together.  Trikin’ Dave was on the desk when I checked in which was great as I’d hoped to see him, although we only had time for a few words.  I tried to find him later before I left, but I think this coincided with him going out on a rescue mission for a rider who was down in the horrible rain.

I was very hungry here and for the only time went back for seconds of pasta, then a muffin; that much would have made me feel sick elsewhere.  I don’t think I had any sense of celebration of reaching Edinburgh; just keep going.

710 km

 

Edinburgh – Innerleithen 43 km

I loved this section.  Deserted roads up and down valleys.  We accidentally formed a Yorkshire group, with Osian, Nick (suffering but determined to finish LEL and achieve a Brevet 25,000 award, which I believe he did), and Jack and Patrick, both from Leeds.  Nice chatting carried us up the climbs, eventually pee and jacket stops separated us.

Scottish Borders

The Innerleithen control was lovely and in retrospect I should have stopped here for sleep; Osian did but it seemed a bit soon for me.  Great to see Lucy McTaggart here after doing her weekend of rides not so long ago. The food here was some of the best.  I forgot to buy mudguard stickers and missed getting a badge.

753 km

 

Innerleithen – Eskdalemuir 49 km

A twisty route out of Innerleithen as it got dark was followed by one of my highlights; riding through these hills as dusk turned to darkness; moon, stars and riders’ lights up ahead twinkling, and the silhouettes of hills.

Innerleithen hills sketch

Going up was good, going down, with (as it felt) limited illumination, less so.  I’m not sure if it’s my light or my confidence.  But the second half of this stage I hated.  I was so alone by now, the only other person was an Aussie who came out of nowhere, speeding downhill just as I’d braked to avoid some cows who showed no sign of moving at all.  He soon disappeared and I was alone again.  I was staring to get a bit cold but was reluctant to stop as I was ‘nearly there’.  This was a section that brought back memories of a conversation on yacf on ‘the only time I thought I might die on an audax’ (2009 epic weather I think); here was a steep drop to a burn to the left on a very quiet road.  Ok it was dark, but the weather was good now; I’d hate to be here in the circumstances that were described by others.  Eventually the junction familiar from the Moffat Toffee appeared, and I was nearly at the control.  The sight of a bunch of bikes leaning against a hall – the control!  No, I know it isn’t, because it isn’t the community centre…could the building have changed shape?  I’m confused (and clearly tired).  Then a Peter appeared and explained it was a dorm, the control was another 2 km down the road.  2 km!  It seemed so far.  Finally I got there and had some soup, then looked for somewhere to sleep.  I knew there were only 30 beds here (although they’d got the extra ones in the hall down the road and they were all full), but the cafe floor was also pretty full so I tried to get some sleep sitting with my head on a table. That didn’t work.  I was sitting looking bewildered when Chris Crossland (again! how did he get here?) came over and offered me an emergency camping mat (which I suspect may have been his own accommodation).  There were no blankets left but the room was warm and I had my jumper on, but still had random shivers every so often.  I asked to be woken at 4 am but didn’t really sleep and got myself up. I think I ate some more, the cafe still looked like a disaster zone but the amazing local volunteers were still going.  In the few minutes it took to faff outside before leaving the midges attacked, and I was glad to be moving again.

802 km

Barnard Castle - Eskdalemuir route

 

Wednesday 2nd August

Eskdalemuir – Brampton 59 km

The route to Langholm was the same as on the Moffat Toffee, I remembered a climb but it was ok and warmed me up so I stopped to take a layer off.  There were a few others on the road, and stopped in Langholm, but I rode alone.  Shortly before Brampton the route joined back up with the northbound leg, near the border.  I stopped in Longtown just as a garage was opening at 7 am for a can of coke.  The  woman running it had already dealt with many riders on the way up so she was fully aware of the lunacy of it all.  I was struck by her strong northern English accent so close to the border – you don’t have to go far north to find thick Scots (the accent not the people!).  I had a nice moment of peace, and watched two jackdaws on a roof next to the garage, one being affectionate and the other seemingly uninterested.  I realised here that if I got no further it didn’t matter and I’d already had a wonderful time.

I arrived in Brampton and collected my drop bag again to get clean gloves, hat and arm warmers.  I didn’t really need them but since they were there I thought it might be good to have a change of seams. I went for an hours sleep, much needed but I didn’t think I could afford any longer.  On being woken (again that you volunteers, all went to plan) I felt very spaced out.

Brampton dorm

I saw Osian and Louise in the cafeteria, Louise agreed that I looked like I was on another planet. I think I managed to get a couple of fried egg rolls, always a favourite riding food for me.

861 km

 

Brampton – Barnard Castle 83 km

The weather started nicely.  I think caught up with Osian but went passed – can’t remember why, maybe he’d stopped. Then I caught up with Raj and we rode together for a while.  He recalled the first time we met (Wiggy 300 km) and commented that he’d learned to ride rather than walk up the hills since then.  A couple of guys came passed (now known to be Jon and Simon), Raj jumped on their wheel and I followed. It was a comfortable pace and they swapped around a bit at the front.  Raj seemed happy where he was but for the first time ever I took part in some almost-proper group riding and took a turn on the front. I found knowing how to pace it really difficult, and they actually asked if I was happy to slow down a bit at one point.  The roads started to rise and the weather got worse. We stopped for waterproofs before the Yad Moss climb proper. It was bleak and seemed harder than going northbound…looking at the profile the first bit by Brampton is steeper going this way, but the Alston – Middleton section is fairly symmetrical, so I expect it was more about weather and tiredness.  Saw what I now know to be Drew Buck’s camper van cafe, it was one of those times when you feel like you just have to keep going so I missed the magic flapjacks. A couple of overseas riders were taking a lot of photos here and we were amazingly able to smile and wave at appropriate moments despite the relentless climbing and rain.

Climbing Yad Moss

Nearing the top (disappointIngly no sign or anything to mark it as far as I could see, it’s slightly undulating up top so never clear when you are at the summit) we stopped for extra layers to keep warm on the descent. Some time on the way down our speeds differed and our little group broke up.  I stopped in Middleton-in-Teesdale (reminded of the stop here on Beyond the Dales, at which I was sorely tempted by the ‘hotel’ sign) for not one but two flapjacks in a bus shelter. Saw Wobbly’s bike parked by a cafe. The final leg to Barney was a long slog, I was soggy and fed up. At least we had a brief glimpse of the Castle coming this way, but I was not feeling in the mood to stop for a photo, and there was quite a bit of traffic.

I arrived at the control (cruelly up a steep drive) to meet Victoria on duty outside.  The rain had pretty much stopped by now, so I took off my sealskin socks and wrung them out. Vic was impressed that I put them straight back on, but as I pointed out it’s better done while they are still warm. Then Wobbly arrived with a three-pack of socks he’d just bought and offered me a pair, but I was already saving a dry pair in my rack bag for some sort of final luxury. I checked in and was waiting to get food when Pete appeared and exclaimed ‘let me give you a huge hug!’, which he duly did. Any thoughts of not wanting to go back out there were banished by his joy and care, and more so when Erica came over for a chat. I knew I just had to keep going. Peter came back later and introduced me to Sue, with a preface of ‘you can tell her to go away’, and ‘I’m a skeptic but she has an amazing effect on some people’. Well I’m a skeptic too but by now also embracing all LEL had to offer. Sue is a patient (dental) of Pete’s, as far as I know she’s not a cyclist, but was voluntarily spending several days at the control doing reiki (definitely not my thing) and general life-enhancing stuff.  We had a very short (under the circumstances) chat in which she taught me to tell myself that I could do this, and also dispensed many hugs.  One of the more unexpected and surreal moments of the ride, but along with support from Team Davis it really helped me to go on with a positive spirit which I didn’t have when I arrived. I also met Louisa, another mini-Davis.  So amazing that these three young adults would give up their time to work silly hours helping support their parents, supporting us.  A last photo-op with Erica and Pete, then off.

Peter and Erica at Brampton

944 km

 

Barnard Castle – Thirsk 64 km

The weather was better for at least the start of this leg.  Here’s Whorlton Bridge, no chance of conserving the momentum gained on the way down.

Whorlton Bridge

Some time before now my Achilles(es) had started hurting, first the left then both.  Saddle was ok, discomfort but I’ve had worse.  I was strict about cleaning with baby wipes and reapplying Conotrane at every control. I noticed that my hands were now struggling to do anything other than change gear or brake, which was pretty much all I needed them for now.  Cutlery was challenging though. Numbness didn’t set in until afterwards.

I remember riding back through Newby Wiske and there being some VC167 riders and a guy on a recumbent leapfrogging, but nothing much else.  Marcus from Port Navigation was busy on entrance/exit duty outside at Thirsk and so I didn’t get chance to speak to him.  I think Julian was here too on the check-in desk, we’ve done quite a few of the same rides this season, he’s a very experienced randonneur and when I’ve seen him on a ride it’s always been reassuring .  This was the 1000 km mark, but it didn’t register as I was using the route sheets which reset to 0 km at each control; I really liked this because it focussed on just getting to the next control and not being overwhelmed by the enormousness of the ride.

1008 km

 

Thirsk – Pocklington 67 km

At some point along this section it became night. I found myself with a nebulous group including some other JJ riders, and as it became properly dark and we headed towards the Howardian Hills I could reliably identify a French guy (Pascal as I found out much later) and a couple of other riders, all overseas I think: there wasn’t any conversation in either direction. I pretty much hated this bit.  Riders were all over the road, not sure how much of this was sleep deprivation and how much riding on the left (there was no other traffic to act as a reminder, I tried to remember what ‘left’ was in any other language but could only manage German, and they wouldn’t have needed any help). Pascal nearly came off a couple of times falling asleep, which I found scary.  I felt a responsibility but didn’t really know what to do to help; I remember asking him if he had any food. Descending in the pitch black was easier with our combined lights, so in that sense I was glad to be with others, but still I felt we were quite slow (how I could have gone any faster on my own I don’t know…). I found the roads strange…in our pool of light they looked like climbs but by cadence and gear felt like gentle descents.

On arrival in Pocklington I knew I’d need a couple of hours sleep.  There was a dorm across the road but it was full, so I was directed to an audax bed/the cafeteria floor. We ate quickly and Pascal and I agreed to leave in a couple of hours after some sort of sleep. I think he got a bed eventually; after some uncomfortable fidgeting I managed to find a blanket which improved the comfort and warmth of the floor by an order of magnitude. When I woke I found Osian and he joined Pascal and I when we left. I knew now that I wouldn’t be able to have another ‘proper’ sleep, it would just be a case of going as long as I could.  Before now I’d felt ok for time in hand but here I started to stress about it, thinking I’d be upset if I managed to finish but was out of time.

1075 km

Eskdalemuir - Pocklington route

 

Thursday 3rd August

Pocklington – Louth 97 km

After donating some Conotrane to Raj who left very quickly, Pascal, Osian and I left together, and picked up an Irish guy whose name I’ve forgotten (sorry again). I think I chatted to team Nibbles somewhere along here too. We stopped at a little shop on the north side of the Humber Bridge; Red Bull two for £2, they must have been doing a roaring trade. Over the bridge with no navigation issues this time.

Humber Bridge

I can’t remember much after the bridge to Louth, I was starting to nod off so stopped at a bus shelter to find the bed already occupied – was it Rickie? – so had a sit down with my hat over my eyes, 20 mins nap which left me feeling much better afterwards.

Happily Louth had some food this time, nice cheesy and veg pasta if I remember right.  The chap serving said his 16-year-old son had offered to come along and volunteer at the last minute and had been in the kitchen pot-washing all night; what a star. Osian went for a sleep. I got my drop-bag and went for a shower, bumped into Simon and Jon who gave me a towel and saved me a walk to find one.  Another hideous school communal shower set-up, again I’m astounded at what we expect our young people to accept as a ‘rite of passage’*.  I left with Pascal, a can of coke, and some much-appreciated campness from one of the guys on the control desk.

*Not at all a complaint for LEL.  Rather recalling my past memories and present identity.

1172 km

 

Louth – Spalding 84 km

This was hell, and probably where it all fell apart. The wind was either head or cross, and very strong.  I found riding with Pascal difficult, in retrospect he’s an experienced randonneur and perhaps I should have stuck with it. The pace felt slow, I was stressing about time and wanted to go faster. I knew I’d need to sleep again. He seemed to want to set the pace in front all the time; if I took a turn on the front I’d end up pulling ahead and then wait for him to catch up, at which point he’d take the front again straight away, so I didn’t feel like I was doing my share of the work. At one point he wanted to rest so we pulled in at a bus shelter and had just dismounted when an American guy stopped and helped himself to the bench, then made some cryptic remarks about sheep…so I just had a flapjack and set off again. Goodness knows how we’d have coped if actual bus passengers had the cheek to occupy such places.

Then I got into a really weird and unpleasant state of mind. Pascal stopped for a leak (I’d noticed that by this stage blokes would stop absolutely anywhere and go without lifting a leg over the top tube) and I pressed on, expecting him to catch up.  I felt very sleepy and became fixated on getting to Spalding where I’d allow myself an hour of sleep.  I focussed on each route sheet instruction, counting down the kms and pushing painfully on. The mental pushing here was intense, horrible, unlike I’ve known before, and I knew I couldn’t do it again during this ride. Every pedal stroke was clear yet seemed a finite resource.  A few folk (including Yorkshire Nick I think) had caught up on the last few turnings and followed me as I took a wrong one, sorry.  Pascal wasn’t at all far behind as we turned in to the control, he looked a bit pissed off but I just told him I had to sleep.  He pretty much bounced the control; Chapeau.

I had an hours sleep in the dorm and had some warped LEL-related dream. When I was woken I knew that I had to go and eat and then set off, but my understanding of what I was doing, why, and where, was disrupted. I thought I had to get back to Loughton but for the arrival of someone, maybe royalty?  I knew that I was confused but it took a while to remember exactly what I was doing. I do remember a lovely volunteer telling me I was doing bloody well, and felt a bit chocked up by it.

1256 km

 

Spalding – St Ives 61 km; …Cambridge

I left Spalding with about an hour in hand. Under normal circumstances I’d be confident that I could cover the remaining distance in time, but these are of course entirely abnormal circumstances. Probably I already knew then that I couldn’t finish in time. Sense of days had gone now, I think it was still darkening when I left. I enjoyed some of the first roads here; flat and sometimes following water that you’d occasionally get a glimpse of through the darkness. I think the wind had dropped, and there was a little rain. I saw an owl flying in a field next to the road, it came and perched on a fence post and looked me square in the face as I passed before taking off.

Owl sketch

I could hear crickets all the time on this section.  This started to seem weird and I became convinced that either a couple of them had a attached themselves to my coat, or that it was a new noise that my bike was making heralding an imminent mechanical disaster.  I brushed my shoulders a few times to see if I could get rid of them but to no effect.

It got dark and I remember a string of villages  I was nodding off again and stopped for a nap on a grass patch by the road.  I wasn’t there long but had a very clear dream about an art teacher I had at secondary school who was a twunt.  Getting ready to go again a few folk rode passed, including one guy who was playing music out of a speaker of some sort.  It was very odd traveling along the dark roads with this patch of light and sound up ahead.

In Cambridge I ended up following a few riders through the traffic light car-trap bit before the guided bus lane, I’d seen it online and knew to avoid it but failed miserably…at least the place was clear of traffic at this time in the morning. After a bit of faffing we found the bike lane and I pulled ahead while I could. Again, was this a mistake, should I have joined the others and would the company have kept me awake?  The bike lane was lit up by permanently-on cats-eyes on either side, it was a strange experience following the two lines of lights and being able to see nothing else. Then through the centre of Cambridge, quiet at what must have been 2 or 3 am, just a few revellers. Followed the cycle route out of town and started to fall asleep again, I snapped awake and found myself in a cycle lane that I’d vaguely seen through a haze…relieved not to have come off. I knew I needed to sleep again and found a patch of grass under a tree; still urban but residential, and I was keen to make it look like my stop was intentional, not an off. I leaned the bike against the tree and lay down with bits of me in contact with it, I seemed concerned that someone might try and steal it while I slept.

I don’t know how long I was there but it was light when I woke up. I’d put on my jumper and waterproof, my buff as hat and my hood up, but unsurprisingly was a bit cold on waking. I stood up and tried to decide what to do. A few riders went passed. I knew my LEL was over. I’d passed a sign to Cambridge train station a while back so initially thought I should head that way, maybe sleep in the station until I could get a train back. I was out of time, and the distance to ride to Great Easton (50 km?) and Loughton (another 50 km) seemed a long way. But others were still going and they must have been close to or out of time as well, since I was in one of the last starting groups. That convinced me to go on for a bit.  Then I changed my mind and turned back towards Cambridge. Then I stopped again, seeing more riders, and turned around again and continued in the direction of Great Easton. I’m not sure why I didn’t either try to catch someone or wait for others and have some company. But I didn’t get too much further, to Little Shelton, before I was falling asleep again and knew this was not sustainable. I powered up my phone and found there was a train station not too far back the way I’d come, which turned out to be on the Cambridge – Cheshunt line that I’d travelled down on. I got a train about 6.30 am, nowhere on it to prop the bike up so I had to stand next to it and was then falling asleep standing up. I remembered I had a few jelly beans left and eating them kept me conscious to Cheshunt. I got a taxi to the campsite (slept through most of the journey until the driver woke me up for directions) then got into my tent for a few hours sleep, until the morning sun made it unbearably hot. Then I got up and went for a shower, meeting Dean who’d finished and had a few hours kip at HQ. He spoke of high DNF rates and quipped ‘there’ll be an enquiry’ which provided a little comfort to my DNF.

I walked down to Davenant School to collect my drop bags, and hoped I might see Raj, Osian, or the others I’d ridden with. On the way I met Chris Crossland off to find ‘some different food’.  He said he’d been in Eskdalemuir when a driver arrived for the drop bags and said Chris was on the list too, so was transported back to Loughton (I hope he was allowed to sit in the cab rather than share the journey in intimate contact with full drop bags). The bags were almost all there (they were still waiting for Spalding I think) and already sorted by letter. I realised I hadn’t eaten in ages and asked if they had anything, I was sent to the kitchen to help myself to potato and beans. I was defeated, but I also knew I couldn’t have gone any further.

LEL drop bags LEL drop bags

Later I went into Loughton centre and found Pascal waiting around on a bench (he said he hoped no one would think he was homeless and give him money), and we chatted for a while. He had another 1000 km+ randonee coming up and was hoping his ankle, or maybe knee, would be ok for it. I left him and bought a notepad and pen, to doodle and scribble with my defective fingers, and set up residency first in Starbucks and later Wetherspoons, until it felt like a respectable time to go to bed.

About 1350 km

Pocklington - Cambridge route

 

Epilogue

It was a privilege to be a rider on LEL.  Wonderful as a bike ride, but so much more. The organisation and the people who make it happen are amazing.  From the volunteers who give up a week’s holiday to work ridiculous hours, to the core team who have been planning this for at least 4 years and spend day after day on our daft questions, so many people made this a success.

Many sections were fantastic, and I hadn’t enjoyed riding my bike for a long time; I reminded myself to appreciate them while they lasted, not knowing how far I’d get or what lay ahead:  Owls hunting over the fens as dawn came on Monday morning.  The tailwind allowing me to bomb along at 30 kph.  The road past Castle Howard, ridden at least once before (so I know I can do it again etc).  Velvety-topped airbeds and soft blankets that will forever be the most welcoming and comfortable beds in the world.  Pasta; I had been off carbs in preparation (no bonking at all and hardly any food not at controls, I’m marking that down as a success).  Yad Moss going north with drawn breaking.  Friends at Barnard Castle.  The familiarity of Lockerbie Tesco in such unusual circumstances.  Chatting to Maryjane about Hewitts and being technicians.  Talking to the guy with the union jack tights in the dark.  Ending up in a Yorkshire peloton for a while.  Climbing the Beeftub – eventually by bike.  The descent afterwards – you could freewheel for ever.  Edinburgh to Innerleithen; beautiful hills and deserted roads.  Seeing familiar faces: Dave in Edinburgh, Lucy in Innerleithen, Chris everywhere.

 

Learning

Having been unsuccessful on my 600 km rides I was lacking experience in sleep management and this is what did for me in the end.  I need to – either or both – ride faster, and spend less time in controls.  Or be able to stay awake for longer, but I suspect that is largely pre-determined by biology.  An advantage(!) of DNFing is that I kept my brevet card with the arrival times on, so I already have my ‘time in hand’ graph.

Time in hand graph

I didn’t hurry through controls, but being after the bulge I also didn’t have to wait around much for anything.  So while I could have been quicker with the water/bogs/food routine I can also see that under different circumstances (more queues) I could easily have spent the same amount of time stopped just because of waiting for stuff.  Which suggests I would benefit from riding faster.  I think this means nasty things like ‘interval training’.

I was really pleased with myself managing to stick to the philosophy of ‘just focus on the next control’ (at times only the next routesheet instruction). I think the distance being so much further than I had gone before, and my capability unknown, made this easier; getting to the next control was often all I could expect myself to do so there was no point in worrying about the rest of the ride.

I’d definitely go for a late start time again.  As noted elsewhere you will pass more people than you’ll be passed by, which is psychologically helpful.  The bulge is avoided.  Given the current knowledge, experience and awesomeness of the organisers you are unlikely to get to a control that has run out of food.  The only thing is that if you are out of time but still going the controls might be closed; if you’re out of time but an earlier starter you still get all the benefits of the controls which are open for the later folk.

Bike and kit

I rode on my Hewitt Cheviot tourer, which is my ‘good’ bike.  I got it for touring with audax at the back of my mind.  No doubt it’s not optimal, but people rode LEL on Bromptons, a mountain bike, a Pashley,  several fixed, plus recumbents both two-wheeled-and-naked, and three-(and even four)-wheeled and fully-faired.  And that funny tringle-shaped thing.  It really is not about the bike.  I’ve been doing all my own maintenance this last year or so, many thanks to my local community workshop Pedallers Arms. The only thing I didn’t mange to do that I wanted to before LEL was replace all the cables.  Nevertheless my bike did everything I asked of it, and I had no mechanical issues.  I think my position could be improved, and a bike fit might be a birthday present to myself in the future.

‘Bike-packing’ luggage seems increasingly popular, but I don’t think I’d change my rack-pack set-up.  For me the rack may as well stay on the bike, as it’s been used on numerous rides this year when camping or just dossing in a hall on sleeping mat and bag pre-audax, and every time it comes on and off there is the risk of damaging the mounting threads, so keeping it on is preferable.  I have a small bike frame and limited room for either frame or saddle bags.  My Super C has great capacity plus being box-shaped you can see and access what’s in it easily.  I do have an Alpkit bag just behind the bars; I intended this to be a home for a charger and battery (usb-werk or igaru but I ran out of disposable income), but it has been very handy on audaxes to hold wallet, phone, pen, lip balm and brevet card.  On LEL most of these didn’t need to be to hand so it was less useful.  In the time before the start I decided it was better to have my waterproof jacket and gloves (a) more easily to hand, and (b) not taking up space in the rack pack, so I used a dry bag with a couple of fixings to keep it on the rack, just behind the saddle.  This is probably the best view of it luggage-wise:

Humber Bridge

I thought I might hate my bike and all that is cycling after LEL, but it’s been quite the opposite.  It’s now waiting for new cables and headset bearings, not to mention a good clean.  It gets a pat on the handle bars everytime I walk past it on my way out of the shed.

 

Damage

Two weeks post-LEL (no cycling): Achilles pain has pretty much gone now although ankles are still slightly stiff.  Always worse in the mornings. A little numbness in toes, one or two on my left foot occasionally slightly painful.  I’ve been most conscious of my hands, all of my fingers are slightly numb but my left hand is noticeably worse and my thumb and forefinger are sometimes not bending when they should.  Strength is limited, not sure if this is real or due to a lack of feedback from the numbness. But I have managed to write (messily) and then type this.

Mentally I’ve been in such a different place compared to the months before LEL. Perhaps it’s a human equivalent of ‘have you tried turning it off and on again?’  I felt such clarity on the first couple of days of riding that I haven’t had for a long time.  A friend asked me a while ago, ‘what do you think about for all those hours riding?’, and for me the beauty is that I don’t really.  It’s simplicity, like when I’ve been touring, except more intense and immediate. I have to follow these instructions to get to the next place where I can eat and maybe sleep; I have enough with me to keep just about warm and dry.  I had connections with people in a way I don’t normally, volunteers and riders, so much is stripped away and we all just get on with what we have to do, all the time looking out for each other.

I’ve made an effort to hold on to everything and process it all rather than avoiding anything, so I’m not beating myself up about not finishing; I don’t regret stopping when I did, because I could not go any further. I am happy to question myself and answer myself on this. I’ve ordered a jersey and I will wear it with pride, cos I damn well earned it.

Recently someone on FB defined DNF as ‘did not fail’. I’ll go with that.

LEL brevet card