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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
618 km, 41 hours