The LEL Experience

I’m currently sitting on the flight back to Cape Town via Dubai and now is probably as good a time as any to reflect on the week that was.

It was brilliant. Certainly not easy, but mission well accomplished. Glancing back at a map of the UK, the distance covered over four days on a bicycle still seems vast. Even in a car, it would have been quite a drive.

Is this my ‘Top Ten Tips for LEL‘? Well, sort of. These are random thoughts on what you may encounter, plus what I have experienced and might do differently next time. If you are keen to see what happened on the road, check out the write-up here.

There were four of us from South Africa taking part in Londen-Edinburg-London 2017 — Chris van Zyl, Wimpie vd Merwe and myself from Cape Town, plus Pawel Wuzyk from Johannesburg.

Three clowns on a couch. We got two seconds on TV, a week before the ride. Thanks to Spot for the trackers and sorry that we didn’t bother to fit new batteries while riding. Honestly though, these units are great for safety and to keep your loved ones at home updated on your progress.

The mundane, traveling

Back home, Mini-Me (just over 1yr old at the time) helped me pack. I was going to miss the little guy. I flew into Gatwick in stead of Heathrow as it is smaller and quicker to navigate. My inbound flight arrived in the morning and the outbound leg departed in the evening, which was perfect on both accounts, leaving the days open to travel to and from the hotel.

Surcharge. Emirates allows for 1 x 30 kg piece checked-in-luggage, but I was whacked with a R1k overweight charge at Cape Town International, as they were adamant I may only take 2 x 23 kg pieces, which makes no sense. Fortunately the attendants at Gatwick saw the light and I wasn’t penalized again.

Getting to Ilford via train was easy enough as all the stations (bar the very last one) had elevators and I could move the bikesafe with relative comfort. The three of us stayed in the CityBest Hotel — the name was a bit of a reach. It was situated in a part of town where old furniture that was left outside also gets left alone.

We also witnessed a minor transgression, as someone came in from the street and quickly helped himself from the buffet breakfast before running off again. At least we could store our bike boxes at the hotel until after the ride.

The pub

Oh, when the sun sets in Essex…

Chris and myself went out for dinner the night before our start. We went straight to the nearest pub (a lovely Irish one) and proceeded to sample numerous pints of foreign ale. Closing time came just as we were gathering speed, so we hopped over to the next bar. Some shots followed.

When the second pub also closed, we found ourselves running around outside in the rain looking for a bus. Or an Ark. But by now everything was closed and we were absolutely drenched when we got back to the hotel. There was no way that we could get any wetter while cycling to Edinburgh.

Navigation

I had none. And I’ll be the first to admit that it was entirely my own fault. Should have checked things beforehand. The tiny Garmin Edge 25 only has an eight hours battery life, so it wasn’t a contender. And I couldn’t get the files from the PC to the Bryton Rider that Eugene has kindly lent me — I suspect the cable, as we tried multiple laptops without success.

Paper Maché. I took along a set of printed cue cards, but it proved rather useless without having your total distance traveled or recognizing any of the names on it. Visualize this: you stand alone in the middle of the night, somewhere on mud island, trying to throw some light onto a stack of cryptic pages while they disintegrate in the hard rain. Good luck.

Laissez-faire. My approach was simple: there are 1500 other rides, all I had to do was follow them. But it wasn’t foolproof. The start groups are small and neatly spread out so you eventually end up going alone. It cost me dearly on a couple of occasions.

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Our horses. Wimpie baptized our bicycles — the so-called ‘July Winner’, ‘Epping Donkey’ and ‘Stokperdjie’. Coincidentally, all four South Africans arrived with a Specialized, with Chris on a Tarmac, Wimpie on a Raubaix, Pawel on a Diverge, and my own Secteur.

No drop bags. There was a possibility of two, but I opted not to take any drop bags, rather taking everything I need with me like on PBP, in order to have a sense of freedom and change my plans as I go along. I don’t regret this one bit and would probably do so again. In fact I took along way too much stuff in any event.

British summer. Now I know why they are always talking about the weather. Within the first two days I simply put on all the clothes I had with me — cycling top, UV sleeves, base layer, wind breaker and rain jacket. And it was still nippy.

I heard someone mention 3 degrees Celsius and it certainly felt like it. You could spot the South African a mile away, looking like the Michelin man in between all the brave souls who were out in just their short sleeved cycling tops. Madness.

Daylight. It was still cold and wet, but the days were extremely long, to such an extent that you really only needed bicycle lights between 10pm and 4am. Especially as we went further North, where the days seemed never-ending, which meant my total of three battery packs were complete overkill, as I didn’t even manage to deplete a single one.

Route planning. While eating at one of the controls, I saw a fellow rider with neatly printed elevation profiles of each stage. In hindsight, this would have been a great way to know what to expect on each leg.

Time planning. We had a 117 hour cut-off time. I wanted to finish in under 100 hours. Cycling at 20 km/h average, this would take up 70 hours. Add a generous hour for each of the 20 controls and you are at 90 hours, leaving 10 hours for sleep. Sounds easy.

Until it becomes a blur. When and where am I? What was yesterday and when is tomorrow? I took me a while after the ride to accurately place an exact timeline of what happened when.

If you snooze, you lose. Bless the volunteers. They provide a great service (and it is remarkable to see how many riders are keen to volunteer on the next edition). I would change only one thing; the wake-up procedure —

I sleep like the dead. So a simple tap on the shoulder with a polite ‘one should probably wake up now’, won’t cut it. I need someone to rip away my blanket, shout in my eardrum and possibly kick me in the plums.

I overslept on two occasions. In both instances my intention was for no more than half an hour, but I ended up sleeping ten times as much. First at Brampton (Northbound) and then at Pocklington (Southbound). At least I arrived at the finish fairly well-rested. Next time I will take a taser and ask my neighbor to use it to motivate back onto the saddle.

Come dine with me, LEL

Tim Noakes would have had a stroke upon seeing all the carbs. The focus certainly wasn’t on protein, but there was a wonderful spread and I sampled everything. Almost every control had some form of pasta and rice pudding. Most of them also had fresh fruit, which is exactly what you crave for later in the ride.

I had two small portions of haggis in Scotland — had I known that it consists of sheep’s heart, liver, lungs and stomach, I might have reconsidered. Either way, there was never a shortage of food, at least not when I arrived at the controls. Despite my best efforts, I still returned to South Africa 4kg lighter, down from 115 to 111kg.

Got milk? I didn’t take as many Rehidrat® electrolytes as I thought I would. Because of the cold you tend to drink less and have to make a conscious effort to take in enough fluids. The longer you ride the less sugary you want your drinks and I often had two or three glasses of milk at each control. Very little coffee, come to think of it.

Duncan Macleod

I’m not going to attempt to find words to describe the staggering beauty we encountered up north. Suffice to say Scotland would be right on top of a next holiday short list. You get that same feeling of remoteness as when fishing on a desert beach in Namibia. If I was immortal, I’d also hang around here for a couple of centuries. The mystical surroundings keep your mind completely occupied.

Jump! I’m pretty sure this happened around Yad Moss. There were plenty of these sheep grids (what we know as cattle grids) in the road. Some were silky smooth to cross and others were rough. I came down a hill a speed in low light and saw the grid a little too late, so instinctively jumped and must have cleared the whole grid with ease. Nice way to wake up again.

Handlebar palsy. I distinctly remember the jolt of electricity that shot up from my left palm all the way up my arm to the shoulder. Damn you, ulnar nerve! This happened somewhere during daytime while standing and pedaling back towards London. It was then that I realized it is time to back off the pressure on my hands a bit, especially the left.

Shermer’s determination. Towards the end of the ride I noticed some heroics. One chap’s neck gave in, ready to flop over at a moment’s notice. His muscles couldn’t maintain the weight of his head anymore, so he fastened (or more likely had someone do it for him) an inner tube to the back of his helmet and the other end on the back of his saddle, enabling him to carry on riding. Rather adventurous, unless you can look left and right like a chameleon.

Tumor. This was rather unexpected. On this last day of riding, I got the message that my uncle has a brain tumor and has to go for a major operation on the 28th of August. This kept my mind occupied for hours on end — thinking about our own mortality and the ones we love. I have full confidence that the diagnosis would be non-malignant and that he make a full recovery in no time at all.

Mind the gaps. There were two distinct memories that I couldn’t place where it happened and had to read quite a bit before I could place them —

  1. First was the Devil’s Beeftub. I recall the name and know I stopped for a Coke in a village close-by, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember where. Turns out it was somewhere between Moffat and half-way.
  2. Second was a magical moonlit bicycle lane, the smoothest I have ever cycled on. It was right after one of the controls, at night. We were in a group, first on the right hand side of the road and then crossed over to the left at an intersection. Turns out it was the bridleway next to the bus-way from St Ives to Cambridge, through to the Fen Drayton Lakes.

Is LEL the UK’s toughest Audax?

Probably. 1500 starters and only 800 finishers, showing that it’s not just a walk in the park. For me LEL was certainly more difficult than PBP. If you want to reduce it to numbers (115/117 hours = 0.98 for LEL vs 78/90 = 0.86 for PBP).

But it is a must-do ride. In my humble opinion, this is the next logical step after PBP and has to be on your list. It’s all inclusive, you don’t need anything outside of the controls, the volunteers are magic and the scenery is sublime. Great work, Danial and team.

  1. London-Edinburgh-London and the rise of the Audax
  2. The UK’s toughest Audax? London-Edinburgh-London
  3. Would you ride London-Edinburgh-London?
  4. London-Edinburgh-London 2017 finishes today

Hindsight

Nice-to-haves, in no specific order. Mud guards may keep your bum dry. A fancy hub with that charges your light and a USB socket. Rear pannier bracket. Rennies to offset acidity. Cleats in their bottom-most position to relieve pressure on your feet. Oh, and there were enough charging stations that you didn’t have to go overboard with power-banks.

True North. I managed to get back in time without a GPS, but it would be a rather more relaxed experience to cycle with one. With the exception of PBP, I won’t consider doing another long ride in a foreign country without a proper, fully functional GPS. Using a phone is just cumbersome.

After finishing London-Edinburgh-London, we cycled the 1hr route back to the hotel, only to be in for a nasty surprise —

Mould. Our bike boxes were stored in a cellar, next to a furnace. That room was extremely hot and I all my soaking wet clothes from that night before the start was still in the box, only now everything was nice and fluffy and the smell was intoxicating.

I opened our windows and waited outside with a beer for the smell to dissipate. I threw away the worst of the clothes and a pair of sneakers and aired the remainder to dry. Luckily Valerida zip-locked my clean clothes so I still had one fresh pair of everything and it wasn’t necessary to go shopping.

Afterwards. This was only my third 1000km+ ride. Either the recovery went extremely well or I just knew what to expect by now. Due to copious amounts of Sudocrem my arse was in great nick. Bit of a swollen knee, but all well after 24 hours. And my palms were already itchy (not hairy) so busy mending themselves. I could even use the nail clippers. All-in-all, great recovery.

Saturday. We’ve done all the touristy things in London before. I just wanted to sit on a red double-decker tourist bus and drive around the city all day — no walking and no standing in queues. And this is exactly what we did, plus a boat cruise down the Thames. Chris and I went for celebratory beers again, but nothing as serious as before the start. Back in bed by midnight.

Sunday. Finally, ET was going home. After a hotel breakfast, packing and two long last cappuccinos (large enough to give Joostenberg a run for its money), I lugged the massive bike box back onto trains from Ilford, through Stratford and on the Circle line to Gatwick. Arrived early, boarded, and now I am sitting here stabbing at the keyboard.

By the time I get home, little Nico will be fast asleep and we can only catch up tomorrow morning. Tonight is his mom’s turn.

What’s next?

While we were doing a mere 1400 kms, buddy Rob Walker embarked on something more extreme — an epic 4000 km journey covering 13 countries, climbing four times the height of Mount Everest and aiming to finish within two weeks, meaning almost 300 kms per day over mountainous terrain. I have been following TCR closely ever since I got off the bike. A seed has been planted.

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