LEL 2017: The 1400km Ride

These are my recollections — I tried to keep it concise, so it doesn’t take you as long to read as it took me to cycle.

The condensed version would simply read that we cycled continuously for over 4 days, covering 1440kms of UK countryside, enjoying brilliant organisation and hospitality from hundreds of volunteers, while looking like sleep deprived zombies and stuffing our faces every 80 kms. I loved every centimetre of it (other than the cold) and wouldn’t mind doing it again.

Ignorance is bliss. It is only now, after the event, that I sit down and have a look at the route. I must admit, during some stages it would have been nice to have seen an elevation profile in advance, but all’s well that ends well and I’m glad I didn’t spend too much time pondering on it beforehand. Danial Webb has conveniently uploaded everything into RWGPS.

Ps, the controls were marked N/Sx for North vs Southbound.

0km

Start at Loughton. You don’t want to be late for the start of a 1400km ride, but I was. Getting to the start proved to be more of an adventure than I thought — this being my first time navigating with google maps while cycling. Timing the turns need to be very accurate, unless you want to re-route and make u-turns all day long.

I missed my ‘V’ start batch and went off 15 minutes later with ‘W’. Not a problem, as the first stretch was fast and flat and there were other riders around so I didn’t have to concern myself with navigation. Oh, and I saw a fox for the first time.

So thirsty. About halfway to the way to the first control I have already gone through both my water bottles (must have been last night’s drinking), so I stopped at a house to refill. The inhabitants were very friendly and pointed me to the fact that their brother, was also a keen long distance cyclist. Little did I know it was the legendary Ian Hibell. Small world.

100km

N1 at St Ives. Déjà vu. Just before the control we went through an area called Huntingdon and I recollected fond memories of the time that I shared an apartment with ‘the Captain’ in Huntingdon road, Sandton. With 100km in the bag, the first control was a beacon of hope. And those cheese pasties were amazing.

161km

N2 at Spalding was a mere 60kms from the first control at St Ives and this was going to be one of the flattest stages of the tour. We had a tailwind of sorts and ate up the road ahead.

Everyone warned me about the vastly different conditions we wound encounter on the way back, ie battling into a headwind with over 1200kms in the legs, but that was a problem for another day and for now I was just enjoying myself.

244km

N3 at Louth. The 80kms to Louth was dead flat for the first 50, with and then a gradual climb over the next 30kms. Off course I didn’t know any of this at the time, not having studied the route before. I was just happy to still have other cyclists around me that I could follow around corners.

The groups were now dispersed and it became clear that you’ll have to be wide awake to see where they turn. I also remember a lot of signage to Market Rasen, which is a bit to the west of Louth.

Getting to Louth means we went through the Wolds, a range of hills in the county of Lincolnshire. It is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and the highest area of land in eastern England between Yorkshire and Kent. And if it wasn’t dark outside, I am sure I would have enjoyed the scenery.

As we left Louth I remember seeing a couple of turn-offs towards Grimsby and I chuckled while visualizing the scene where Sacha Baron Cohen was tea-bagged in his recent movie, The Brothers Grimsby. Wide awake.

What could that be? It was night and one could see the two pillars stacked with red lights from absolute miles away. At first, I didn’t realize it formed part of the bridge. No wonder we could see it from so far away, as they are 160 meters tall.

300km

The Humber Bridge. At 2¼ kms in length, this engineering masterpiece was the world’s longest single span suspension bridge for 17 years, since it was opened in 1981 (a year before I was born).

Cruising over this bridge at night was an eerie and exceptional experience. The peaceful and silent spin, 30 meters above the water, seemed to continue forever. Better yet, by crossing the bridge it meant that we only had another 1100 kms to go. Onwards.

341km

N4 at Pocklington. I arrived herein the wee hours of the morning. It was bitterly cold outside, but the control was absolutely superb. They had a massive selection of different foods and I immediately opted for the fish and chips. What a way to start (or rather continue) your day. And then, as I was about to leave —

Ahoy, Mateys! I saw Chris and Wimpie outside. Great stuff. Some familiar company. We set off together into the daylight. The first 25kms was dead flat, until we reached the Howardian Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. And it certainly was pretty.

We passed the 24 meter high Obelisk at Barnard Castle and continued towards the hills. I lost the other two somewhere up a climb and this was the last time I saw Chris.

Cock-up in Coxwold. About 8 miles before Thirsk, there was a stop at Coxwold. It wasn’t mandatory, so no need for your brevet card to be signed. It was just a rather nice and quiet coffee stop where the local community all brought baked goods for the riders. And it couldn’t have been timed better, as I was on the lookout for a coffee stop in town in any event.

There must have been no more than 4 other rides at the Coxwold stop, so I promptly made use of the opportunity to grab 30 minutes of sleep on a gym mat, neatly positioned at the back of the room, underneath a window so that I can bake in the morning sun. Pure bliss.

Wrong turn. As I was about to set off, I overheard someone giving directions to a rider and remember something to the effect of ‘pass the church then right’. I promptly set off in the wrong direction, heading for Byland Abbey, which is the remains of and old English monastery, and historical landmark.

In passing it became clear that this must not have been the church in question, and by the time I reached the next village, I didn’t recognise any of the names.

I turned around and made my way back up over the hill and politely smiled as I passed the volunteers at the coffee stop from a few minutes earlier. No harm done. Couldn’t have been more than 10kms out of my way.

407km

N5 at Thirsk. Having just stopped moments ago at Coxwold, I wasn’t in need of much love from the control at Thirsk. It was nice to have reached the 400km mark, just 1000km remained. I grabbed a quick bite to eat and set off again. Just 70kms to the next control.

475km

N6 at Barnard Castle. This control was certainly one to remember, for various reasons. Firstly, the grandeur of the Barnard Castle School building. There was a great sense of tradition, which I appreciate.

Secondly, immediately being recognised as a South African while dishing up — Lesley promptly asked ‘so which one of the four are you, then?’. Thirdly, for meeting up with Wimpie. He didn’t look great at the time. I suggested a meal and some sleep, but he decided otherwise, opting to ride with me into the night.

Eat or sleep or pedal. I offered to wait while he gets his things together. My feet were hurting at the time so a took a couple of minutes to move my cleats to the down-most position. I had about 9 hours in hand at this stage, so things were looking good.

A good hour must have passed by the time we were ready to go. This was my most inefficient control stop yet. Another selfie, then we set off. It was late afternoon and we wanted to get over Yad Moss before dark.

Yad Moss

I’ve heard so much about it as this was the one climb of LEL, located in the North Pennine mountain range (another AONB), between Middleton-in-Teesdale and Alston. Total distance of about 35 kms, including both the climb and descent. And oh boy, what a descent. Not steep, but never-ending.

At this stage Wimpie and I were still together and we flew down that hill, passing other riders as if they were looking for parking. I thoroughly enjoyed this bit (despite the fading light and patches of rain) and was very much looking forward to doing it again.

Here be cobbles. Alston is found in Cumbria, on the NW end of the descent. Famous for being the ‘highest market town’ in England at about 1000ft above sea level and features a steep cobbled section in the middle of town with a tight left-hand turn. We were still riding at speed and the cobbles proved not to be too much of a hindrance.

Night rider. As you exit Alstom, there was a Texaco and a Spar on the one corner some of the very few largely branded buildings we have seen in quite a while. Brampton was still 30kms away and we had to switch on our lights for this stretch, as it was now dark. Wimpie had to follow my light, as his were out of order.

558km

N7 at Brampton. By now I was long overdue for a nap. This was the lowest point of my ride. Wimpie tried to get more footage at the breakfast table, but his attempts to record something useful proved futile:

Die Teddiebeer op LEL 2017.

Posted by Wimpie van der Merwe on Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Famous last words. With no more beds available, I followed the instructions of a volunteer who promised that he would come and wake me up and went off to an adjacent room.

Never mind 20 minutes, I woke up five hours later. Well rested, but slightly annoyed, as I only planned to have a quick nap. Having now eaten into those precious hours-in-hand I had time to make up to keep the sub-100-hour-finish alive.

It must be said, when I entered that dark room there were only a couple of riders lying down, but by now there were bodies everywhere. You had to take caution not to trample someone as people were lying all the way down the corridor. I guess the volunteer didn’t know who to wake up.

Onwards. Off I went. Wimpie had long gone. In my mind, we were just going to cross the border into Scotland and then we’d be in Edinburgh. Not quite. Edinburgh was still 150 kms away. So I just kept pedaling. By now there were decidedly fewer riders visible in front, and I missed a turn somewhere.

Almost 600kms into the ride and this was the first time I had to stop and fire up my phone to consult google maps. But there was no signal on that specific hill. Luckily I had maps.me installed, with all the UK maps, so I could figure out more or less where I was and headed towards Moffat.

The scenery was sublime. I fell in love with Scotland. It’s more than kilts and bagpipes.

Shortly before Moffat, I heard something terrible — someone had come off their bike. I turned around and saw a lady next to the road. Loose items everywhere. She must have lost concentration for a second.

Another bloke turned around and it was clear they were riding together. His ‘what did you do’ was probably rhetorical, but she replied with the obvious, ‘I fell’, before a couple of tears interrupted her. They had things under control and I carried on.

632km

N8 at Moffat. We arrived at what looked like a rugby academy as the control. It was morning and the control was fittingly light and airy. I had breakfast with a friendly group of Italians, even though we didn’t quite understand each other. Then I went for a shower and felt like a new person.

Before setting off again, I had a long phone conversation with Valerida, as she was kindly helping me some work back home. Time spent at this control was much more than I would have liked, but all was sorted and I felt fresh and keen to get to Edinburgh.

The first 12km after the Moffat control was a steady climb to our highest point of the stage. From here on it was a very fast 70km gradual descent to Edinburgh. The last couple of kms I traveled with a German who had a zero tolerance for slow riding — we went through suburbia at the speed of light, as he navigated us through countless traffic lights and stops and turns that eventually led to a cycling lane through a park in order to reach the control.

Half-way

N9 at Edinburgh and 712kms done, while still raining outside. Kind of an anti-climax, really. I went inside to find a rather long queue for food, so charged my phone and got an anti-inflammatory while waiting. There were no beers, just more milk. The pasta was god and I was keen to get back on the road.

I set off together with a couple from the UK, but after a few missed turns they realized that her Garmin was upside-down(!). I met up with other riders and went ahead, keen to re-visit familiar controls on my way back to London.

Somewhere near Innerleithen I had an interesting experience — Snake! A shiver went down my spine as I passed the bugger. But something felt off and I slammed on the brakes to go back for closer inspection. Yip, just as I thought, it was only a branch in the road. I’m no fan of snakes and this one could easily be blamed on me just being sleep deprived.

Eskdalemuir. I was knackered by the time I got here. Eating was a slow process and some sleep was required. I took an ibuprofen and was quite happy to sit and nap on the toilet for 20 minutes, but the main door kept banging open and shut so I’d never fall asleep.

Having asked permission to quickly lie down in an office underneath a desk at reception, I promptly fell into a deep sleep.

Exactly 20 minutes later my alarm went and I jumped up and made my way outside. On my way out I saw Pawel enter the control and now I’ve seen seen all my fellow South African riders. He was looking for a proper bed in a building close-by — a wise choice indeed, given the outside temperature.

This was the coldest weather I have encountered yet. I needed to warm up and started pedaling at first sight riders in the distance. But something felt amiss and I couldn’t quite place it. Then I realized, my polarized glasses were missing. I must have left them at the control.

I turned around to the control and started looking inside. Luckily, they were right next to where slept under the desk. What a relief. I hooked the next batch of riders and we went into the night once more.

863km

S1 at Brampton. We have now done 150km since Edinburgh and were back in England. I remember the names Gretna Green and Carlisle, from just before Brampton.

The memory of oversleeping at this control on my way North was also still fresh. This time round I just grabbed some food and were out of there rather quickly. Yad Moss was waiting.

30kms later, I stopped at the Caltex & Spar as we entered the town of Alston. Quite a number of riders joined me; everyone keen to take on some energy before the long climb. I grabbed the 2 Lucozades for 2 pounds, and a packet of crisps. The weather was better and spirits were high.

Yad again

So began a slow and steady ascent up Yad Moss. It wasn’t nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. In fact, I rather liked it and was passing a number of other riders on my way up. Just before the top, we found a welcome coffee stop. It was Drew Buck and he seemed to be well known and well liked. Google later taught me he is the famous Onion Johnny from PBP.

946km

S2 at Barnard Castle. Getting here was a breeze, as we cycled downhill for the last 40 kilometers. I felt great, didn’t waste much time and got on the road again to try and make up more time to Thirsk.

1011km

S3 at Thirsk. Great stuff. On my previous visit here, we still had 1000km to go, but now only 400km remained. I entered the control, got my card signed, plugged my phone and power-bank into the charging station and had something to eat.

This was also a perfect opportunity for a shower and some fresh kit. I had no use for all the wet clothes, so it went into a green drop bag and the kind volunteers said I could fetch it at the finish. Brilliant, a weight off my shoulders.

On the road again. Pocklington was less than 70kms away. We’d cross the Howardian Hills once more and climb the equivalent of two Helshoogte’s in getting there, so nothing to worry about. This time I couldn’t see the Obelisk or Howard Castle as it was dark outside.

1080km

S4 at Pocklington was was something to look forward to, with good food and because the field was now very much dispersed, there were more than enough beds in the hall across the road. I made my way there for a quick recharge, left my bike outside and requested a wake-up call after half an hour. Guess what?

I overslept. Again. My intended 30 minute nap turned into another five hour stint. Not sure whether they didn’t (or couldn’t) wake me up, but where I went to bed with a couple of hours in hand, I now woke up to being a couple of hours out of time…

Make haste. I needed to get to the next control, pronto. No time for breakfast. The two bananas in my bag would have to suffice.

I went to the loo. With no time to spare and not many people around, I popped into the Ladies, where I found a hidden treasure. Someone had left a full tub of Sudocrem on the counter. This was going to be my day.

Such is randoneuring. That random tub of ass magic was all the mental edge I needed. Now to the task at hand. I had around 4¾ hours to get to Louth on a lumpy 100km section, including the mighty suspension bridge and hilly Lincolnshire.

My dad to always look for the positive in any situation. Here I was working against the clock, but had the opportunity to cross the Humber Bridge during daylight as well.

Then I lost sight of other riders after being separated at traffic lights, in broad daylight. I back-pedaled and found another couple of riders, whom I followed until the roads opened up and I could catch the guys in front.

1175km

S5 at Louth. Success. I arrived at the control with just 14 minutes to spare. After having my card signed I went to grab some yogurt and fresh fruit. The building was extremely hot inside. I made a quick phone call to Valerida to share the good news.

After my quickest transition at any control to date, I was back on the road and heading for Boston. There were more cyclists around and I was rather looking forward to this next stage. It started with two hills as we exit Lincolnshire and then completely flattened out towards the control at Spalding.

Sure, there would be rough headwinds, but we come from Cape Town and have formally graduated from wind school. Bring it on.

Off course. Lost, again. How is this even possible? Simple. I dropped the riders around me and went ahead. Then stopped at a chap from the east while he was mending his rear tyre. The others passed us. I finished my banana and carried on, expecting to catch up in no time. But there were a number of turns and I obviously took the wrong one.

Tick, tock. I proceeded to waste an enormous amount of time in finding my way. This included knocking on doors, resorting to the cryptic cue cards, getting rained on, throwing them away, then finding a little butchery hidden nearby to inquire as to the easiest route to Spalding. I was directed towards Boston.

Never a dull moment. See, just when you think you are in control, a curve ball. I was now on my way to the largest town around, just to find and jump onto the A16 to Spalding during rush hour afternoon traffic. Not ideal, but simple enough.

As a positive, I got to see the largest parish church in England and Boston’s most notable landmark, St Botolph’s Church (‘The Stump’). Off course I only read this after the fact.

Spalding was another 30kms out from Boston. I needed some energy, so stopped at a petrol station and again bought 2 Lucozades for 2 pounds. Swallowed the one in a single go and poured the other one into my water bottle.

I asked for the correct road to Spalding but the attendant was none the wiser and certainly not from the UK. I got directions from two guys in a panel van next to me while stationary at a traffic light. It was simple enough and I found the A16 a couple of circles later.

I won’t recommend an A road during rush hour. The yellow line is decidedly small and there were cars-a-plenty. This stretch turned out to me my least favoured out of the whole trip. But I got to Spalding in one piece, despite the wind.

By now it felt like I have spoken to half the UK residents, asking for directions. And man that was only happy to help, informed me that his son was also riding.

1260km

S6 at Spalding. At last. I crossed the river and went into the control, only then realising it is the same one next to the cricket field. Wonderful, I liked this control. I dismounted my bike and went inside, happy to be building up some time again hand once more.

We had less than 200kms to the finish. From here on I would stick to a group, despite not cycling at my preferred tempo.

As we left Spalding the sun was slowly fading again. It provided a perfect backdrop for the 10 miles that we cycled along the bank of the River Wellend. This would be our last night on LEL and I was looking forward to the finish.

1320km

S7 at St Ives. Check out @ACME_Essex. These guys were amazing. I cycled with them for the last two stages. This ride was almost in the bag, but there was no room for another wrong turn or getting lost again. So I hooked onto their train, did my part in front, and sat in awe, watching them navigate — two guys in front, one with a GPS and one with a route sheet. Nothing goes amiss. I would be happy to pilot a rally car with either of them giving instructions from the passenger seat. Hats off, guys.

Cambridge

Newton. Darwin. House. Hawking. Borat. Keynes. Attenborough. All went to Cambridge. What an absolute privilege to study here. Talk about tradition. We cycled through in the middle of the night and this was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my LEL. Magnificent buildings. The energy was tangible. I absolutely loved it.

1395km

S8 at Great Easton. This was our last control before the finish, which meant the last opportunity to go through the motions — eat, re-hydrate, recharge and mend your rear. With just 50kms to go to the finish line and I was certainly not going to get lost on my own, so while the guys from the train were still going through their motions, I waited horizontally on the dining area floor.

We headed out as one large group, into the coldest part of the night. The last stage was a bit of a formality. Everyone was chirpy and seemingly happy for this adventure to come to an end. There were another million little turns that required careful navigation and we went over a couple of steep rollers towards the finish.

Morning has broken for the last time. Now picture this. An open field. The sun rises from behind. It reflects onto ascending yellow maize fields in front. Tall green trees align on the horizon. All underneath the dark hues of blue and grey skies. A perfect start to the last morning of our LEL. This was one of those moments where you don’t want the ride to end.

1441km

Back to Loughton. As we passed the Hobbs Cross Golf centre you could hear the rush hour morning traffic of the ring road M11/M25 intersection. Back to reality. We spent the last 4 days cycling 1440 kms in epic conditions, but all too soon we were nearing the concrete jungle.

Bitter sweet. The Theydon Bois roads started to look familiar, or at least I thought so. There were LEL signs and arrows indicating the last couple of kms. I was sneaky and accelerated off ahead. Coming around the last corner into the Davenant school, I saw a couple of volunteers and supporters cheering us on at the gate. I smiled, went in, and suddenly it was all over.

Arrivee.

I promptly parked my bike and went inside for the very last stamp on the brevet card, before handing it in to the officials in return for ‘a small token of their appreciation’ — that medal. Shoes off and into the dining room, where I found Wimpie. Congratulations all round. And now it was time for a very well-deserved nap, right there in the corner of the dining room. Good morning. And good night.

Thanks a million to Valerida for holding the fort back home, you’re a star. Hats off to Damian and his army of volunteers for staging a superb event. And to my three partners in crime — Chris, Wimpie & Pawel — for a memorable trip to the UK.

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