29 October 2009

London-Edinburgh-London 2009, the prologue I...

LEL - the prologue...
So my LEL preparations started in earnest in September 2008 when I paid the fee and submitted my registration form for LEL. I began the winter training in December 2008 or so, and rode a 200 km ride at least twice a month until May/June. I also did a few longer rides, 600km, 300km, just to check out the legs and gear, and then I slowed down from early July. 

I had decided to go to the UK one week before the ride began, in order to catch up with friends from when I used to live there. I flew out on Friday 17 July 2009 and arrived in Heathrow Terminal 5 the following day around lunch time. Then it was on the train towards the south-west...

My LEL preparations increased in intensity as I arrived in Crediton, a 10-minute train ride outside of Exeter in beautiful SW-England late in the afternoon on Saturday 18 July. My friends Biz & Pete from my time at Bangor University picked me up at the train station and we walked to their house, about 200 meters from the train station. After European standards it was a short walk but I bet that 99% of all Americans would have expected to be picked up by a car for the trip...  Biz & Pete of course knew that I used to walk 2.2 miles to work and 2.2 miles home from work every day when I lived in Bangor, and that the tiny trek wouldn’t be a problem at all.

Anyway, I hadn’t seen any of them since March 2008 when I was last in the UK so once I was installed in their spare bedroom we had a couple of Carlsbergs or 3 in their garden to celebrate my return to dear old Blighty.  After a few pints in the sprinkling British summer weather we retreated to the indoors, where Pete fired up under us with an excellent Chili Con Carne.  

They informed me about Exeter’s nightlife and the plan they had laid out for me for the evening (unless I wanted to go to bed early and rest). No way! Staying up till 2 in the morning while drinking numerous pints with your friends is by far the best way to get over the jet lag quickly.

Therefore it was inbound for Exeter and it’s Ex-iting nightlife when we had finished the Chili and another Carlsberg. We started out at Wetherspoon’s  with a couple of Fosters and comparing the dress code of the locals in Exeter with that of the locals in Bangor (far less track suits and fewer super-overweight teenagers in Exeter than in Bangor). Also, the Wetherspoon’s in Exeter, being located in an old orangerie, was far better looking than the one in Bangor, with a HUGE panorama window with cast iron glass panes. But, Wetherspoon being what it is, and with Biz & Pete promising that there were much more exciting pubs in the city centre we broke up and headed towards the downtown area (as the city centre is known in the US of A). 

In Coolings Cellar , where the downstairs lounges have ceilings that are roughly 5 foot and a few inches above the floor, we sat down with a Heineken in plush leather seats and enjoyed the spectacle of lanky young brits trying to avoid banging their heads into the arches. I did feel the jet lag rather strongly by now, so we didn’t stay for too long in the plush decor - or I would have drifted off to la-la land...

Consequently we went for a place where chances were that we wouldn’t be able to get a seat: Timepiece , which used to be Exeter’s prison but now has been converted to a 3-story night club and pub. We had another Foster’s while standing around, but suddenly a table opened up so we were able to actually sit down. Fortunately I was able to stay awake. It was really a cool place, as were the other pubs we had visited during the night. Massive oak tables and benches provided the right feel for a former prison, I thought. 

The last pub that night was Amber Room  (I think, forgive me if I’m wrong, but I’m writing this from the memory 15-16 weeks after I actually visited). It was a quite hip place, but the fact that we now were getting close to closing time meant that the hipsters had or were about to leave - apart from Biz, Pete and I, of course. We got our pints (another round of Foster’s) and once again sunk into soft leather seats while reminiscencing our Bangor past and what had happened since (a lot, actually, but that is not the topic of this tale - at least not yet). 

As we emptied our drinks we looked out the window onto the street and saw a taxi pull up in front of the bar - it was ours; we had ordered it 8 hours before, before we even left Crediton. This was one of the many wonders I never fully grasped about England: How is it possible to order a taxi to pull up in front of a pub at 1.30 Sunday morning 8 hours in advance, and then have it actually happen? Surely that would never have been possible in Denmark, and I also very much doubt that it would be possible in Seattle. Regardless, the taxi was there, it was in our name, and 15 minutes later we were back in Crediton and on the way to bed.

Beer tally for Saturday 18 July: 3 Carlsbergs (Crediton), 2 Fosters (Wetherspoon), 1 Heineken (Coolings), 1 Carling (Timepiece), 1 Fosters (Amber Room) for a total of 8 pints on a pleasant night out. An Ex-cellent start to my final week of preparations for LEL! (I take hydration seriously...)

Upon getting out of bed rather late on Sunday and enjoying an excellent breakfast with bacon, sausages, toast etc. etc. etc., prepared by chef Pete, we took the train to Dawlish on the coast (the channel coast, in case you were wondering [the *English* channel coast for the slower readers]). 

Dawlish was a peaceful little seaside town with a couple of secluded beaches, red rocks and cliffs. The weather was typical English summer weather, so I was happy that I had brought my wet weather gear along. We went for a walk along the promenade, which took us to one of the beaches where we could admire the red rocks. They are made up of loosley consolidated sandstone with angular pebbles in a matrix of fabulously red sand-sized grains. The pebbles were really rather loosely embedded in the matrix and it was easy to pick them out if you tried. 

Then it was back to Dawlish for a quick lunch (pastries, what else?) before we walked along the seaside walk to Dawlish Warren. The walk is only a mile long or so, but it is on the seaside of the railroad tracks. If you have ever taken the train from London to Plymouth you will undoubtedly have noticed a section where the train is right on the edge of the water - that is this stretch. As it turned out, the seaside walk is indeed to the seaside of the railroad tracks, with waves from the channel washing over the walk, so you had to time your walk carefully if you didn’t want to get wet feet!

We made it to the other side, close to Dawlish Warren, without being overly wet, and enjoyed the view from the top of the red cliffs overlooking Dawlish and the Channel. The it was down to the Red Rock Cafe for a well-deserved cuppa. 

Since it was now getting close to afternoon-ish we all started to feel that beer o’clock was approaching so we boarded the train back to Crediton. Or rather, upon our return to Exeter we realized that the next train to Crediton was in 55 minutes, so we headed over to a local pub opposite of the train station - The Jolly Porter .  A few minutes later the first pint of the day was being enjoyed. We had a table next to the window where we could enjoy the great attraction in the neighborhood - a double roundabout (so in the shape of a figure 8).  Almost every car that went through the roundabout went through in a different manner than the previous car. It was a highly amusing sight and I was quite surprised that no accidents had occurred after 15 minutes of car watching.

The pint (a Foster’s) disappeared rather quickly, so after having finished our drinks we decided to go across the street (and the roundabout!) to the Great Western Hotel  for another pint.  In the plush, deep leather seats from another century we enjoyed the second  drink of the day in a relaxing atmosphere designed for conversation about the latest cricket results and the upcoming fox hunt.  Since we could talk about neither we talked about a lot of other stuff and headed out just in time to catch the train back to Crediton. 

Upon our return to Crediton the plan was to head out to explore the local pubs there. Since it was a Sunday our plan was to find a place where we could indulge in that most cherished of British meals: The Sunday Roast. But first a drink, so we had a Carlsberg before moving on... Then we moved on to the Crediton Inn  where I first had a pint of Silver Stallion sharply followed by a White Russian.

It was now getting towards 20:00 in the evening so it was about time to find a pub for the Sunday Roast. The local Wetherspoon  was chosen but when we arrived we discovered to our dismay that they were out of roast for the day! Oh well, fortunately they were not out of Bangers and Mash so I had a large portion of that, together with 2 pints of Pedigree.

Then it was back to Biz & Pete’s place for a well-deserved night of sleep after a great day of outings and pubbing. Beer tally for Sunday 19 July: 1 Foster’s (Jolly Porter), 1 Full Sail (Great Western Hotel), 1 Carlsberg (Crediton), 1 Silver Stallion, 1 White Russian (Crediton Inn), 2 Pedigree (Wetherspoon) for a total of 6 pints and 1 drink on a *great* day in Devon!

Monday was my last day in Crediton before moving on the Portsmouth to see Kathryn. Biz and Pete had to be home in the afternoon as they had some furniture delivered, but we went into Exeter in the morning. We parked and then walked around for a bit to take in the sight of the cathedral and the tons of churches - and there are a lot of churches in Exeter! 

We meandered down to the river, where the riverfront shops were just opening up. It was clearly here that the good people of Exeter came if they wanted to buy heavy oak furniture. Several small shops specialized in the making and selling of sturdy oak bed frames, huuuuuuge oak dining tables (2 inches thick tabletops!) and lots of other furniture of the kind that would last 8-10 generations at least.

It was also close by the river that the parts of the old city wall, dating all the way back to the Romans, were easiest to see. The city wall was no match for the mighty Danish viking army who conquered the city in 876. Unfortunately they were driven out of the city again the following summer, only to try again in 893. But, as unbelievable as it may sound, the Danes were not able to conquer and plunder the city again until 1003 when they were let into the city by a Frenchman, Emma or Normandy. She had married the English King, Æthelred the Unready, in 1002 in order to lighten up the relationship between the English and the Normans.  However, perhaps because of her Normannic heritage she was sympathetic to the Danish invaders (the inhabitants in Normandy are descendents of early Viking raiders in that area in the 800s)? Regardless, it was very nice of her to open the door to the city for my ancestors. I was glad that I had a much easier time getting access to the city than they had. 

But I couldn’t help wonder how an action like that would affect the conversation when Æthelred came home in the evening from a hard day of ruling the English people: 
Æthelred: How was your day, love? 
Emma: Oh well, quite brilliant I dare say my darling: I met up with some distant relatives and showed them around in Exeter. They were very pleased with the shopping! It was frightfully exciting! 
Æthelred: Marvelous dear, I’m glad you had a good time...ummm, are you not of Normannic descent my honey-bunny? Would your distant relatives perhaps be those Danish scoundrels who plundered the entire city today?! 
Emma: But sweetie-pie, they are so far away from home and they need food and clothing to keep up their work...
Æthelred: ...which is conquering England!!! We’ll talk about this tomorrow sugar; you can’t just let anybody in all over the country! It makes me look bad when I confront the people! What’s for dinner?

Anyway, I didn’t try to steal anything. In fact I left a few quid in a camera store for a new card for my camera, as well as 10 quid for a haircut and another few quid for lunch before it was back to Biz and Pete for an exciting afternoon of waiting for their new furniture. Around 5pm it arrived: The largest purple sofa I have ever seen in my life soon lit up their entire lounge. And very comfy it was too! We immediately proceeded to celebrate the purchase with a bunch of Carlsbergs and then we were off to the Crediton Inn for a last round of pints in Crediton before my departure for Portsmouth the following morning.
Tally for Monday: 3 Carlsbergs, 2 Silver Stallions and  1 Regatta for a total of 6 pints. That made it 20 pints of beer and 1 drink for the first 3 days of my stay in the UK. Probably somewhat below my ‘summer-average’ when I used to live in Bangor, but quite respectable nonetheless. And the company had been first class!

15 September 2009

August 2010?


...hmmmmm - tempting, but would it be a vise thing to do?

28 August 2009

London-Edinburgh-London 2009, the epilogue...

LEL - The Epilogue...
I had finished LEL2009 in 105:30 hours. After I got my final stamp in my brevet card and had handed it over to the controllers they handed me a little pack. Ooooh, joy of joys - there was a sandwich and a beer in it! Maybe it would be a Golden Best or something equally refreshing? Unfortunately it wasn’t an English beer but some diluted Belgian water called Stella Artois. Regardless, I sat down on a bench with some of the other riders from the US. One of them was John Ende, famous at least in US randonneuring circles for passing a kidney stone during Paris-Brest-Paris 2007 and continuing his ride after having been hospitalized due to the passing stone. Despite the weather he had had an easier ride this time around... 
We drank and ate our sandwiches and generally drifted off mentally in various directions. I was feeling a bit fuzzy from sleep deprivation, but not really tired or sleepy as such, just fuzzy all over. It was also a *very* nice feeling to have completed the ride and although I was way over my initial 96 hour target time I was nonetheless very pleased finishing Thursday evening. This meant I could sleep the entire night, have a big breakfast and then take off for London and get 2 full days in town before heading back to Seattle Sunday afternoon.
But all that was for tomorrow. Now a more pressing need started to become apparent - showering. Last time I was in a shower was Sunday morning. It was now Thursday evening so it had been 4.5 days without showering - and 1400 km of cycling inbetween. While I certainly had been wet for some of the time I’m not sure that it really counted. I went to the counter and asked for the key to my room, got it and started walking my bike towards my lodge.
Then Dave suddenly appeared. I had been wondering how he had finished and how he felt. I imagined that when I saw him he would be well rested, as in Coxwold he was some 15 hours ahead of me, so I figured he would have finished late Wednesday evening or very early Thursday morning at the latest. But his tiny eyes looking at me didn’t really indicate that he was overly rested. He had finished late Thursday morning, some 10 hours ahead of me, so I had made up a lot of time on him towards the end.  He had been riding in various groups most of the way and things had been going so well that although he had planned for a nap in Dalkeith (riding non-stop there), he had continued on with other groups going south, all the way to Coxwold. Coxwold. 1021 km after the start. Without sleep.
I had a hard time comprehending that. I was hallucinating mildly after ~600 km. I couldn’t imagine what another 400km would have done to me. But Dave could tell me: He had been seeing all kinds of stuff the last hours before coming into Coxwold. People on the road that vanished into thin air when he approached them and stuff. Much like cheap drugs. He had slept at Coxwold for a few hours and then continued on in daylight (early Wednesday morning). But the 1021km without sleep had worn him down a bit so progress had been slow the last 400km. The last 68km from Gamlingay had taken him 4-5 hours, riding together with another Dane, actually. Anyway, he made it, but not as much ahead of me as I would have thought. 
Dave suggested we had another beer or two and I was all up for that! He went to the bar to get them and I parked myself and my bike outside on a bench - the weather was really nice now! We drank and talked about the ride; both of us agreed that it was one of the hardest things we had ever done. I decided it was time for a shower; it had been 4 1/2 days since my last shower and I had cycled 1401 km since then. While I had been wet a lot in those 4 1/2 days I hadn’t had any soap to go with the wetness and it felt about time. Consequently I went to my room, which I was sharing with a couple of Italians who had finished Wednesday morning, some 36-40 hours before me. They did look fast... They said they had to get up at 3 Friday morning in order to catch their plane and that they didn’t hope that they would wake me up. Reassuringly I informed them that I really didn’t think that would be possible. 
I then had a quick shower and Dave and I went to the nearest pub for a few more beers and general evaluation. I had 6 packs of chips (crisps for UK readers) as well. An hour or so later I started to feel the impact of the last 4-5 days effort and we broke up in order to head to bed. A couple of riders rolled in as we walked through the gate to the hostel. Well done! 3 minutes later I was fast asleep.
At 6.45 or so Friday morning I woke up again, in a completely empty hostel room. I hadn’t heard a thing when the Italians had left and I had spent 7 hours or so in deep sleep, which felt really good. So I got up and had another shower (2 in 12 hours!) and then headed off for the breakfast room. On the way I met Dave, who was surprised to see me. He thought I would’ve been off in la-la land for much longer. It was probably the thought of the English breakfast that had awoken me - since it was included in the price for the room there really wasn’t any reason to miss out on it...
There were not too many riders in the breakfast room so we had no problems finding a place to sit. Only the sitting itself was a bit of a problem for us - turned out that also Dave had some issues with general wear and tear here and there... A rider who had just finished a few minutes earlier sat down next to us. It turned out he was a cop and that he was living in Wales. His first job had been in Bangor, of all places, so we talked about that for a bit. It was his first grand brevet and he was very pleased to have finished. So was I. This was my 3rd ride of 1200km or more and the finish always feel the same - tremendous satisfaction and a great sense of achievement. Add to that a slight sense of feeling peckish  and you’ll understand that I was very pleased looking down at my plate, eyeing my breakfast, which was steadily disappearing from my plate!
After breakfast it was time to get the bike packed up. Dave was flying out Saturday morning, so if we could make it into London for the afternoon we had time for several pints in the very pleasant (now!) summer weather.  An hour or so later we had both bikes in the boxes and checked out. There was a train strike so we had to take a taxi to the next station over, in order to get on a train operated by a non-striking company. British taxis are great! We had 2 bikes in boxes, I had a huge duffelbage, Dave a backpack, and then we had 2 smaller bags each. It all fitted inside the taxi, together with us without problem - that would not be possible anywhere in the US, where the trunk (boot for UK readers) always has a funky bump in the middle where the spare tire sticks up. Whoever came up with that car design was certainly not a bicyclist!
Anyway, 20 minutes later we were on our way to Liverpool Street Station and from there we went to Paddington where we both dropped of out bikes in the left luggage section. Then we checked in to the hotel and then out to find 1) lunch 2) beer. We ended up sitting in a pub in Covent Garden for 5-6 hours all afternoon before going for dinner in a Steak House back at Paddington Station. Then we said good bye to each other as Dave was off for Canada next morning at 7:00 while I was meeting with a friend coming to town for the day from Portsmouth. So that was really the final end of LEL for me.
Covent Garden view
A quiet pint (or 5...) in sunny Covent Garden!
Dave in London Chinatown
Dave in front of London's Chinatown

It has now been about a month and I have been thinking about the ride quite a lot. My daily distances were 633km, 261km, 216km and 291km. So apart from ‘day 1’ (which was really more like 2 days) the distances were very moderate. I would have liked to see a more even distribution of the mileage, but the weather also came into play. It took forever to get from Eskdalemuir to Dalkeith and back, despite the fact that it was only 166 km for the round trip. I then made it into Alston on midnight and due to the storm it was impossible to go any further unless you were a complete lunatic (all randonneurs have a bit of that in them, I think, but not enough to put you into outright danger...). 
I would have liked to make it to Middleton Tyas at 969km for the 2nd ‘night’ (i.e. 2nd sleep period), and I wasn’t too tired to do that, but the weather prevented any further riding that night. If I had made it to Middleton Tyas I figure that I could have slept 4-5 hours and then be quite well-rested to ride the last 432km in one stretch. 
It is also possible that riding 633km in one sitting was too much, but once I noted the rapid cooling down in Alston I was very determined to not ride in the night (especially w/o my gloves) and was determined to get to Eskdalemuir as fast as possible - together with everybody else, as it turned out... (My buddy Mark from SIR arrived at Eskdalemuir around 19.00 Monday evening and, due to back problems, decided to sleep there. He later told me that when he went to bed there was only one other rider sleeping there, and that when he got up and left in the early morning the place had ‘changed a lot’!!)
Anyway, the way things unfolded I’m not sure I would have done anything different, except try to get in the early start group. If I had been on the road 5.5 hours earlier I could have made it to Eskdalemuir in one go for Monday evening, instead of Tuesday morning. I could then have had about 5-6 hours of sleep until 4am or so, and therefore be on the road 2-3 hours earlier than actually was the case. This in turn would’ve enabled me to get all the way to Middleton Tyas for my 2nd sleep stop, probably early Wednesday morning, instead of being hunkered down in Alston for the night. With 4-6 hours of sleep in Middleton Tyas it would not have been unreasonable to try and make it back to Lee Valley in one go (only 432km) and be back Thursday early afternoon. 
Regardless, even the best laid plans for a long randonnee are susceptible to weather and you end up improvising. In the end I am quite glad that I managed to get 633 km in the first day; that gave me a comfortable time cushion as I met a lot of people in Eskdalemuir that had started in the 8:00 start group. And I know from previous 1200km rides that I usually only need 2-3 hours sleep to recover enough to go out again for 18 hours of riding, so I was never really worried about fatigue. During this ride the worst enemy was the sleepiness (first night, and the approach to Eskdalemuir), and tremendous boredom on some of the stretches. 1400 km is a notably longer ride than a 1200 km. There are 1600 km rides in Germany and 2000km rides on Vancouver Island in Canada. I don’t dare think what they are like. A 2000km ride would take about 7 days, maybe only 6 full days of riding... 
I think I will stick to the 1200 km rides as maximum distance in the future. I now have a 1200km (or more) ride in 3 different countries (USA, France, England) so I only need one more 1200km ride in a 4th country to earn my second International Super Randonneur award - hopefully that will happen next year!

13 August 2009

London-Edinburgh-London 2009, part IV

LEL 2009 - night four and day five...

After more than 7 blissful hours of uninterrupted sleep a friendly controller awoke me at 3.30 Thursday morning and reluctantly I got out of bed. When you have booked a cot and a wake-up time there is unfortunately no time for a lie-in, as another rider is waiting for your bed. Two minutes after I was out of my bed another rider was already in it - guess s/he needed it more than I did... I got the contacts in and brushed my teeth again (just because I could!), then went for breakfast and coffee. After that it was time for a quick lube of my miserable butt and at 4.30 I was off towards Washingborough, 74 km down the road and 1184 km from the start.

I had set off right at the crack of dawn and I only needed lights for 15-20 minutes. I passed the pothole where I had had a flat and sidewall destruction on day 1 - this time I anticipated it and easily rode around it once I spotted it. It was a beautiful day, with fluffy Cumulus clouds on an otherwise blue sky. Way out in the horizon the sky turned grey but at least for now there was nothing but dry, fresh air and the open road ahead of me. Even the wind had died down and on top of that the route was now turning ever so frequently, so that even when there was a head wind it really wasn’t for very long. I was anxious to get down to Washingborough, as there would only be 217 km home to Cheshunt from that control - normally an 8-9 hour ride, but I was aware that it might take a bit longer today...

Looking back over my shoulder I could see the outline of a nuclear power plant, clearly visible above the flat landscape. As the km’s disappeared behind me it would become smaller and smaller, a nice visible assurance of my progress. Dark skies accumulated to the left and right of me, but the road ahead passed right through the only bright part of the morning sky. I could see 3 or 4 rain showers to the left and right of me but I was in the dry! If I had been superstitious I would have taken it as a good warning of an easy last day. Half an hour later I was glad that I was not superstitious, as a black cat ran across the road in front of me while looking annoyed at me - perhaps for cycling too fast so that it had to speed up its crossing half way over in order not to get run over?

Somewhere on the route I passed a sleeping randonneur - he had pulled over in a bus shed and was sleeping standing up, leaned against the wall of the shed, with his hand on the bicycle seat to support him. The bus shed was just opposite from a terrace of houses with people having breakfasts and getting started on their day. I bet they all had a good story to tell when they came to work.

Not long after I was on the outskirts of Lincoln, and only 8 km or so from the Washingborough control. In Thorne I had heard some people talk about some roadwork or some such in Lincoln, and somebody mentioned something about a diversion. I hadn’t paid too close attention as I figured it couldn’t be that difficult since it was only 8 km from the control - how many possibilities could there be for diversions that close to a control? Turned out that Lincoln is a rather big city with many, many roads going in all directions. There was a signed diversion, including some signs for LEL riders, but I must have missed one of the more important ones, because I found myself climbing a monster hill for 10 minutes or so. After that I saw a sign advertising the road to Skegness on the A15. I knew that I had to be on the A15 but I was absolutely sure that Skegness - being on the North Sea coast - was not the direction to go, so I turned the bike around and zoomed down the hill I had just climbed. Bingo! There was the correct A15, and it had only taken me half an hour or so of wasted time to find it. 15 minutes later I rolled in at the Washingborough control.

It was still relatively early morning, around 8.30 or so, so I had all reasons for a 2nd breakfast. To my delight there was plenty of bacon, mushrooms and everything else a randonneur could desire. Lots of coffee too! Mark, whom I had met at Thorne was there as well, having his 2nd breakfast. There were not too many riders there, and I figured I was in between the majority of the riders that had stayed at Washingborough overnight and the majority of the riders that had stayed at Thorne.

A couple of Italians pulled in shortly after me. They were always a magnificent sight - all dressed in their national randonneuring jersey, all in white shorts (after 4 days on the road! How many sets of spare clothing did they bring?), all with clean legs and arms, and all with perfect hair, even after 1184 km? Must be the pasta or the coffee at home... (My hair was actually looking OK, but that was because after 4 days without a shower I could set it any which way I wanted and it would stay that way even when the helmet came on).

Soon I was back on the road, headed for Thurlby 67 km ahead (and at 1251 km from the start). The first 25 km were ridden in pleasant winds in the sun when - more or less without warning - I was hit by a tremendous shower while out in the open with nowhere to go and nowhere to hide for the wall of water that came down. I pulled over and got my rain gear on in seconds but I still became soaked - but at least the water in my jersey would heat up during riding when enclosed in my rain coat... Two minutes later I could stop and take it all off again, as the sun was now out in full force. Gotta love the European summer!

The rest of the distance to Thurlby was spent drying out and putting on and taking off rain gear in anticipation of a severe shower, but none materialized and I pulled in to get my stamp around lunch time - perfect timing for lunch. However, there now was a glitch in the organization as the controllers stamping me in told me to go inside and find something to eat - quickly, as they were running out of food!

I hurried inside and the delicious pastries from day one were certainly gone. Fortunately they had cheese sandwiches, soup, and plenty of cakes provided by the lovely ladies from Thurlby Methodist Church. Thank you very much - they were great with and without a bit of custard!

I once again ran into Mark and another british rider (Peter?) who had foot issues. Not trench foot (like me), but rather the opposite as he had developed a set of big cracks on his foot sole. The nurse controller came out and looked at him and told him that he should drink loads of water and orange mix before taking off as the cracks in the skin were due to dehydration. Wonderful sport!

I sat around for 20-30 minutes or so and then took of in the early afternoon for the penultimate control at Gamlingay, 86km down the road and 1336km from the start. Soon after my departure there was another funkiness in the cue sheet, where I fooled around in an intersection for 5 minutes before a man in a parked car stuck his head out and yelled ‘They all went that way’ and pointed in what I thought was the wrong direction. But it wasn’t, and I was back on track, pedalling at a relaxed pace of 25-28km/hr in a slight breeze - the vicious headwind had died down and occasionally there now was a tailwind!

On the downside was that the landscape was now becoming hillier. The flatlands of North Yorkshire and Lincolnshire had given way to sections with short, but steep climbs and long-ish descents - the hills that we had encountered on the North bound journey, but now in reverse. They didn’t bother me too much - except for a few brutally steep ones - but I imagined that some of the later riders would curse the hills this close to the finish...

Regardless, progress was quite good and late in the afternoon I finally found myself Gamlingay - the last control before the finish at Lee Valley Youth Hostel! The controllers looked a bit worn out, which was no wonder once you thought about it. The control had been open since early Sunday when the riders departing at 8.00 had passed through. Later in the day my start group had passed through, and probably only a couple of days later return riders started to show up. So it had to be manned and kept tidy for almost the entire duration of the ride.

Anyway, I didn’t really pay too much attention to the tired controllers, as I was myself feeling a bit tired of it all by now. Happily I got some soup and some sandwiches and sat down with a big glass of orange mix and ate my last dinner on the road. I was dreading the last bit a little - in 2007 when riding PBP the last stretch had had the exact same distance as what I was facing now and back then I though it had been a very, very long haul to get back to Paris. I was wondering if I would feel the same this time - this close to the end you really just want to get it all over with and have a shower (which I really needed now, after more than 4 days on the road!)

Therefore I was soon on the road again, riding along in the later afternoon sun, the wind calming down, the clouds opening up and the grey skies fading away. It was delightful to ride the last 65 km back home to Lee Valley, apart from a slight fuzziness on the cue sheet in Hertford, 15 km before Lee Valley, where I briefly ended up on a dual carriageway going in the wrong direction. Oh well, back along the sidewalk and then off towards Cheshunt. 8-9km later I saw a sign saying ‘Cheshunt’ and 20 minutes later I rolled in at Lee Valley Youth Hostel, to the applause of the finished riders, organizers, friends and families sitting outside enjoying a well-deserved beer. I parked the bike, walked inside and handed over my control card for my final stamp. I had completed the 2009 London-Edinburgh-London bike ride in 105:30 hours!

10 August 2009

London-Edinburgh-London 2009, part III

LEL 2009 - night three and day four...

Fortunately, night three was over rather quickly, as I slept most of the night under the coffee table. I woke up a few times - like 1.50, 2.30, 3.08, 4.15, 4.45 when riders were getting up and leaving and walking past me on smelly feet. Despite the fact that I was under the table their feet were only inches away from me when the walked down the stairs so...

Around 4.45 I noticed that there was an empty sleeping bag, belonging to the control, on the floor so I quickly took possession of it and draped it over my - still wet - wool jersey and body. My towel was dry by now, but the lure of the sleeping bag was irresistible. Even a king size bed in the Sheraton never felt soooo good! I then had another hour of super high quality sleep before I decided to wake up a final time, head downstairs and look for my shoes, helmet, rain coat, booties and rain legs. Cleverly I had draped the items over a range of chairs downstairs and it took 10-15 minutes to locate all of my possessions and make sure I had everything. Then I was out the door, found my bike under the canoe and was off towards Middleton Tyas @ 969km.

It was full daylight now, but the remnants of last nights storm was still blowing around - so still lots of headwind. However, it was only a few km to the top Yad Moss (598m) and then there was a ~25 km long desecent down towards Middleton-in-Teesdale. This was a lovely stretch, despite the headwind which made the downhill a little less faster than it would otherwise have been. In the end it didn’t really matter. I’m riding a Roberts Audax made of Reynolds 953 and it performs really well on long stretches with headwind. Is it because there is a tiny flex in the frame that helps you get around the dead spot a bit easier? Or is it just because of the fact that the riding position in the drop bars is really quite comfortable, even for extended periods of time? Don’t know, but the fact is that I usually ride very well in a head wind.

It was neat to notice how the landscape changed: When leaving the grassy hills in the heights around Yad Moss and Alston the landscape started to get more small-scale relief and small valleys etc. appeard, together with lush (no wonder, with all the rain!) forests. I knew that before the end of the day I would once again be riding on the flatlands of Yorkshire and it was a neat thought that I would traverse this many different types of landscape formations in daylight so that I could properly see the differences as the relief died out and gave way to flatness.

Anyway, that was still several controls and many km’s ahead. Right now a more urgent need was apparent: I had also forgotten to pack a toothbrush and -paste and it was now more than 3 days since I had brushed my teeth. They started to feel woollen so I made a stop in Barnard Castle and got what I needed. Then I continued on past the Bowes Museum and further on to Middleton Tyas, which was only another 20km or so away.

Upon arriving in Middleton Tyas I went straight for the toilets in order to brush up. 3 days of randonneuring food that had accumulated between my teeth were exchanged for a generous helping of Colgate Whitening Control, and sporting my new smile I went to check in with the controllers and get my card stamped. They didn’t notice my sparkling smile, but unaffected I went for the food section and placed my order, then sat down with a randonneur from the US and another from the UK. We chatted a bit while eating our breakfast/lunch/dinner - depending on when you got up a meal at 11 in the morning could be any of the three.

I thought for a bit that if this had been a ‘normal’ grand randonnee, then there would only be a bit more than 200 km to go, no biggie. However, because this was LEL there was more than 400 km to go - so still quite significant, and around 17-20 hours of riding time + breaks. I felt a bit depressed about the thought as I was starting to get a bit bored with the constant riding, stamping, eating, repeat. This was really a very long ride indeed!

Anyway, the bike wouldn’t ride itself and the control card back to Cheshunt, so I had to do it. Consequently I got up and left, grabbing a couple of cookies on the way out the door. Then it was back on the road and down towards Coxwold, which was only 53 km further away, at 1021 km from the start.

En route I had a slight misnavigation at a sign pointing towards Scorton, but I was ahead of the cue sheet, which demanded that I should rode 2.7 km before turning right. I, however, decided that a right turn here would do, but it quickly became apparent that my road led to nowhere except an old abandoned church and so I decided to turn back, retrace and pay attention to cue sheet and distance. Presto, I was in Scorton in no time. Memo to self - interpretation of the cue sheet author’s intentions is always difficult...

The landscape had flattened out a lot and I did enjoy the ride through the farm lands of North Yorkshire (or was it because I felt some strange connection to this land which - rightfully I think - should belong to me and other Danes descending from the great Viking invaders). There was still a headwind (obviously), but it wasn’t raining non-stop, mainly drizzles and sprinkles now and then. Most of the time I rode in my wool jersey and arm warmers. Before I knew of it I was back in Coxwold, where a few days earlier I had been photographed with all the dignitaries of the town when I set off for the ride up north.

There were no such dignitaries upon my arrival this time. In fact, there was hardly anybody there. It was weird walking into a control with more controllers than riders. A rider was sat down here and there by a table, but in general it was wide open. I was sure that a lot of riders were ahead of me, as I had left Alston a bit late (around 6-ish) and a lot of riders had left that control between 4 and 6. Regardless, I went for my drop bag, and pulled of my wet socks and put on a new pair of dry ones - aaahhh, my feet liked that! I also went for the vaseline, as well as for my 2nd spare tire. I had been carrying the tire from day 2 (the one with a stone in it) as a spare but now it was time to ditch that properly and carry a proper spare tire, one that would work right away. I spent 20 minutes or so getting my bike ready to go, as well as getting my butt ready to go, then I washed up and went for the food and coffee.

They had an awesome homemade crumble at Coxwold, it was so good that it didn’t really matter that the custard was Tesco’s premier quality (which is still pretty damned good custard). There was a control somewhere on the route that had homemade custard, but I forget where it was. Regardsless, the crumble was good and so was the hot food and the bacon sandwich I had before that. I chatted with a controller who spotted my rain legs; he had a pair himself and really liked them. I concurred - I still can’t understand why they are not being used a whole lot more. They are great in the rain and cold and will always keep your legs and knees warm and dry, regardless of the conditions.

In Coxwold I also noticed they had times for previous riders, updated at 10.30 Wednesday. By now it was early afternoon, and I looked for names I recognized, either in person or from newsletters and blogs. I noticed that Dave had passed through 10 minutes past midnight, some 14-15 hours ahead of me, so I figured my estimate of him being 24 hours ahead of me back in Cheshunt was still correct.

However, unless I got my sorry butt back on my bike and pointed towards Thorne, the next control, the gap would be even larger. So I collected my belongings (i.e. helmet, gloves, shoes, booties, rain coat), got it all back on, pulled out of the control and started out in the stretch towards Thorne, 89 km ahead and 1110 km from the start.

Strangely, I have very few memories from the strecth of road between Coxwold and Thorne - perhaps I was more tired than I thought at the time? Or was there just not much to remember? I do remember being more and more bored with the entire ride, though, and wondering if I’d ever do a ride as long as LEL again. I passed by the petrol station where I had had the sidewall/broken valve incident a few days earlier and was pleased that I had added more than 700 km to my ride without getting seriously into trouble with flats etc. Such was my state of mind, but I lightened up a bit as I pulled into the Thorne control with plenty of daylight to spare - it was only around 19.00 Wednesday evening.

I got my stamp and sat down to eat. Opposite from me was the Brit I had chatted with in Middleton Tyas earlier in the day. His name was Mark. We talked about plans for the night and the day. My ideas was to continue to Washingborough, 74 km down the road and then sleep there. I figure that if I left in half an hour I could get 1/3 or maybe 1/2 of the way before it got dark - now that we were riding south again it was noticeable that it became darker lighter than in Scotland. Mark’s plan was to sleep in Thorne, as he had slept in Washingborough on the way out, and hadn’t been to impressed with sleeping on the floor there.

It was so early here in the Thorne control that no cots had been booked yet, so there were 40 luxurious beds available. I wavered. If I slept in Thorne I would get AAA+ accommodations, but I would have 300km to London. I had plenty of time to spare before the finish Friday morning, but I really wanted so badly to finish Thursday afternoon/early evening - 4 days on the road was enough, no need to make it into 5 unless mechanical incidents or accidents demanded it.

On the other hand, if I left for Washingborough immediately I could be there around mdinight, sleep 6 hours, and then I’d only have to ride ~230 km the last day, starting at 7 or 8 in the morning - easy peasy! But I would have to fight for sleeping space with probably quite a few other riders. Oh, the decisions the randonneur faces towards the end of the ride and the lure of the blankets must be weighed against the desire to just get it all over with...

In the end the lure of more than 7 hours of sleep in Thorne won me over. If I went to bed at 20.00 and up at 3.30, then left at 4.30 I would get 7.5 hours of sleep, avoid night riding completely the last night and be able to leave at the crack of dawn, thus easily finishing the last 300 km before night fall.

That did it! It enquired with the friendly controllers and 5 quid later I had been issued cot #29 and a blanket to keep me warm. What a difference from the hard wood floor and the lukewarm towel in Alston!! Since I was the first in the room, I was able to find space to hang my socks, jersey, rainlegs and rain coat so that they could dry out (did I mention that it had rained on and off during the day? There was also a headwind, which had worked up the sweat, in case you wondered).

Cot # 29 - mine for a wonderful 6 hours of sleep in Thorne!

Around 20.00 I had finished my night preparations - I even had time to brush my teeth for the 2nd time that day (luxury!) and take out my contact lenses. Then I laid down on the cot, draped the blanket over my sweaty bibs and undershirt. I had developed some initial trench foot due to my feet being enclosed in neoprene booties inside the shoes all day long. It was great to be able to stick them out under the blanket and feel the air circulate amongst my toes. Then - once again - I fell asleep.

09 August 2009

London-Edinburgh-London 2009, part II

LEL 2009 - second half of night two and all of day three...

I fell asleep in a window sill at the Eskdalemuir control Tuesday morning at 3 am, after 45 hours without sleep. 2:45 hours later I woke up again, just in time for breakfast. I looked around and couldn’t recognize the place - where was everybody? When I had fallen asleep the floor had been *packed* with riders everywhere, to the extent that it had been hard walking around without stepping on a sleeping rider. Now, I was almost alone in the room, save for a few other riders who obviously had slept in.

I sat up and decided to lie down for another few minutes, just to maintain an ever-so-small illusion of a lie-in. It did feel good, though, and 5 minutes later I sat up for the second time, determined to get out of ‘bed’ and on to the road. I had a quick cup of coffee and then I walked out to try to find my shoes and my helmet in the hallway. A few minutes later I was all dressed up and ready to go. I filled my water bottles and then I was out the door, making a left turn out of the control in the direction of Edinburgh. As I was leaving the control I had a look at the skies - they were steel grey, apart from a tiny patch with somewhat less grey (off-white?) clouds. A friendly controller spotted me looking at the clouds and cheered me up with a ‘It’s clearing up!’ Summer in Scotland...

Anyway, I got the body going after a few km and got back in the rythm. My butt was starting to let it self known by now, and I was keen to get into a pair of new shorts - waiting in the Edinburgh drop bag, only some 83 km up the road (literally up!) I was also keen to apply some more lubrication to the grinding body parts in contact with the seat via the shorts...

The landscape was really quite beautiful, with lots of rolling hills and long - very long - ascents, followed by just as long descents, from one valley to another. On top of this there was a nice tailwind, but no sun so it was rather chilly and I rode with my arm- and knee warmers on, as I had been doing for essentially the entire ride, apart from a few hours Monday afternoon (when I used sun screen!)

Farm in the hills

After 45 km a man in a kilt unexpectedly appeared on the road and gestured at me to make a right turn in Traquair- a secret control! It turned out that this was the alternative sleep stop that had been provided to relieve some ‘sleep pressure’ on the Eskdalemuir control - to no avail, obviously... I rolled in and had a quick stamp in my card.


So Scottish...

When I turned around I heard somebody call out my name and I looked up to see Mark Roberts, also from SIR. He had been in the 8am start, so 5.5 hours ahead of me, and had been spending the night in the Traquair stop. He had had some serious problems with his back the entire season and had not had time to get a whole lot of riding in. But he was a very experienced randonneur so he had decided to come over and give the ride a go anyways. I asked him how he was doing and he said his back was killing him on the uphills and the downhills - not the best situation when there was about 300 km ahead before the road flattened somewhat out. He had decided to go to Edinburg and DNF there, then take the train back to London. I felt bad for him, but then again, he would see the entire route and complete half the ride, so would still have lots of memories and experiences from the ride. And an excellent excuse to come back in 2013...

I started to run into a somewhat steady stream of riders returning from Edinburgh, thus some ~100-150 km (5-8 hours) ahead of me. Some of those had been in the 8am start Sunday morning but on a long uphill I spotted a downhill rider greeting me - that was Dave, on his way back from Edinburgh to his 2nd visit at the Eskdalemuir control. He looked fast and I reckoned he would be back in London ~24 hours ahead of me. A few minutes later I spotted Rick Blacker from SIR, going downhill on the homestretch very fast. Rick had started at 8 am, and was riding strong. He was definitely more than 5.5 hours ahead of me. We shouted a greeting to each other and then we continued on!


Me at ~650km

I stopped quite frequently on this stretch to take some pictures of the landscape and the sheep, which were abundant. There were not quite as many sheep as there had been in Wales when I lived there, but there was still a good number of fluffy white dots on the hillsides in almost any direction. To some extent it felt like home (when home was Bangor in Wales) and brought back the memories of many descents from Llyn Ogwen towards Bethesda - a very nice 8km descent if you should feel so inclined...


After a long ascent that crested in what seemed to be a cut in the hillside the road took a sharp right and I found myself looking out over the flatlands (at least that was what it looked like from above) below me - and Edinburgh in the horizon! It was now just a matter of pointing the front wheel in the downhill direction and coast some 15km into the halfway point at Dalkeith rugby club, on the outskirts of Edinburgh!

Edinburgh in the horizon - at last!


After a *fabulous* 15 km of coasting, during which I met many return riders slogging their way uphill towards Eskdalemuir - in a strong headwind - I arrived at the halfway point in Dalkeith @ 716km around 11.30 am Tuesday, some 46 hours after the start. This didn’t really promise too well for my initial plan to try to be back in London in 96 hours. It wasn’t that I was feeling tired or sleepy - as weird as it may sound the 2:45 hours of sleep in Eskdalemuir helped a lot on my sleepiness. It was more the fact that I was looking into something like a 450 km stretch of more or less constant headwinds until I came back down towards Thurlby or something like that. That could turn out to be a bit of a drag in the long(!) run...

Dalkeith control - halfway!

Dalkeith - halfway!

Anyway, I got my stamp and my drop bag. Then I set out to find the showers in order to - not shower, as I had also forgotten to pack shampoo etc. in my drop bags - but to change my bike shorts, which I had been wearing since Sunday morning. It felt *really* good to get everything out in the open for a few moments until the new shorts came on, together with a huge helping of vaseline on the chafed bits and pieces. Then it was back into the control for yet another lunch and a bit of chilling before it was back on the bike. Mark pulled in and came over to sit down and chat for a bit. He had just handed over his brevet card and DNF’ed; now he was planning to have a lunch and the roll the 12 k into central Edinburgh and the railroad station, then let a friendly railroad company take him and his bike back to London.

After another 10-20 minutes or so we bid each other farewell and I walked out the door to my trusty steed of steel, ready to begin the return trip to London. The first 2 km went well, then I incredibly took the wrong turn in a roundabout and discovered my mistake at the end of a very long downhill 5 km later. After a few moments of #$@$%@ I crossed the road and slogged uphill to the roundabout and the correct exit. This wasn’t the most promising start on the return trip... After having made the correct exit in the roundabout I found myself on familiar roads and, reassuringly, a steady stream of riders coming towards Dalkeith.

The uphill from Dalkeith wasn’t really so bad initially, it was more the constant headwind, which would accompany me for the next 300 km or so that was annoying and slowed progress down quite a bit. 10 km out from Dalkeith I made a right turn onto the road that would eventually lead me back into the highlands I had been riding through the same morning, but the feel was quite different now, with the wind in my face riding uphill. I found myself crawling along at a mere 10 km per hour or so and decided that I needed some more speed in order to get anywhere. So I started pedalling more determined in a slightly higher gear and found, as so often before, that going faster was easier than going slow. I was now ‘cruising’ uphill at 15-18 k/h and felt a bit more comfortable on the bike in the higher gear and low in the drop bars - although my butt was now really quite painful. Oh well, it would only be another 700 km in agony before it was over.

As I approached the summit of the ascent the wind increased in intensity and it started to sprinkle a bit. I stopped to put on my booties and rain coat, then proceeded towards Eskdalemuir in increasingly ominous-looking clouds. The wind was really quite strong and at times I had to stand up an pedal on the downhills in order to move the bike forward; rather depressing when there was some ~660 km left of the ride. As I crested one little pass after the other I could see riders ahead of me, slowly moving ahead towards Eskedalmuir in the headwind. Very few were riding in groups, most were riding alone, as I did. One exception was a large group of riders coming up from behind on a descent, screaming along doing 30-40 km/hr which, considering the state of the road (lots of small gravel) seemed a bit risky to me. As they passed me the front rider yelled out ‘HOLE!’ and the entire group jumped left and right around a massive pothole, easily 0.5 m in diameter, in the road. Would have been an interesting sight had one of them gone into it...

Living on your own.

After a couple of hours I made it to Traquair in mid-afternoon and stopped for a few minutes to use the toilet and re-apply some lubrication on my worn out butt. Then I grabbed a few cookies and headed for Eskdalemuir, which I reached in reasonable style around 17.30 - some 11 hours after I had left it. It had taken me that long to ride 166km, and I had spent less than an hour in Dalkeith, so 10+ hours to do 166km (plus the ~10 k detour), half of which was in a very strong tailwind - it looked as if it could take a while to get back to London!

I sat down in Eskdalemuir for another dinner, and also treated myself to a Coke from the controllers. A tired rider sat beside me, waiting for a cot to be ready. He was constantly nodding off but after 10-15 minutes he was told that a bed was ready and he left. He was replaced with an Italian rider who apparently wasn’t too excited about the food (which at Eskdalemuir was veggie chilli, jacket potatoes with fillings and cheese, and rice pudding - I loved it). Maybe in Italy they’re being treated to pasta and pizza on their brevets?

Shortly before 19:00 I was back on the bike, headed for Alston, now at the 894km mark. It was raining rather steadily now, and the wind was increasing - still right in the nose. 7 km outside of the control I encountered a rider still en route for Edinburgh - that would be a lot of work to get home to London before the closing Friday morning. The oncoming rider was leaned over heavily to the right, to compensate for the head wind coming at an angle at that particular stretch. I wondered if I did the same when I was riding in a head wind. My legs felt good and despite the headwind I was doing 22-26 km/hour more or less constantly. Soon I started to catch up to some riders that had started ahead of me and it gave me the energy to put even more power into the pedals to fight the wind. I was soaking wet from rain and sweat (in an ironic twist, I washed my rain coat a few weeks before departure, and then forgot to treat it with water repellant, so it was less waterproof than usual, but still a whole lot better than nothing).

The advantage of being this far north was that daylight lasts until 22:30 or so. The dark skies made the fall of darkness come a bit earlier than that, but I was nevertheless happy about being able to get 2/3 or so of the distance to Alston covered before it got completely dark. And it did get completely dark. The last 30 km to Alston were far away from any towns or villages and I was completely and utterly alone in the pitch black night, in the pouring rain, with a - by now - gale force wind right in the face. It was almost surreal riding along on the road, which felt as if it was gently climbing for miles and miles. It was very twisting too, and no matter which way I went there was a head wind. Some people go down mentally when they encounter conditions like that, but for the most part those exact conditions are what I was used to from Wales in the winter time. Still, I was surprised to see me being able to maintain a 22-24 k/h speed on most of that strecth. The only part that felt really long was the last 4-6 km into Alston proper. I spotted the street lights from far away (first light apart from my bike lights in almost an hour!) and thought I would be there in a flash. But the road kept going up and down, twisting and turning, without the lights getting seemingly a whole lot closer. Frustrating!

Finally I made it into Alston and it was now only a 3 km climb out of town up towards the outdoor centre. There was a section with cobblestone in the centre of town which I walked, but then it was back on the bike for a 14% section - uphill - in a gale force head wind... I spotted a couple of taillights in the distance and I seemed to gain on them very fast, despite me going only 6-9 km/hr. It turned out to be a couple of randonneurs walking up the hill in the pouring rain. I passed them and pressed on upwards and 10 minutes later I pulled in at the Alston control. Upon arrival it took forever to find a parking spot for my bike - hundreds of bikes were parked and strewn all over the garden and grounds - a sign of hundres of riders inside. Finally I managed to find a prime spot under some canoes and went inside.

I got my stamp just after midnight; it was now officially Wednesday morning and the controllers informed me that I would be given 2 hour time credit due to the horrendous weather conditions and because they wouldn’t have riders trying to ride across the Pennines in the middle of the night in this kind of weather. Understandable, it was pitch black dark outside and the rain was hammering on the windows. I had dinner and then enquired about the possibilities for a place to sleep. The earliest bed would be available at 3.30 am, which was 2 hours away. I decided that the hard wood floor would be an excellent alternative and asked if they had any blankets. Nope. But they did have a towel that had been in the dryer for about 15 minutes so it was still very moist, but at least it was a lukewarm moist. I went upstairs to the lounge above the dining room where dozens of riders were sprawled out on the floor. Some of them had sleeping bags from the control, the lucky bastards... Guess this was the reward for being in the 8.00 start - getting to the controls early and get the beds and blankets before the lazy 13.30 starters...

Anyway, I looked around in the darkness and tried to determine a spot that wasn’t occupied by a sleeping/snoring cyclist. There were no such spots. Then I spotted a small, square coffee table next to the stairs. If I curled up in fetal position (foetal position for UK readers) I might just fit underneath it - it would have the added benefit that nobody would walk on me when they got up later in the morning. I tried it and the table had just the right size! It was 1.30 am Wednesday morning. I laid down on the comfy hard wood floor in my wet bike clothes, draped the moist, now not-so-lukewarm towel over me and fell asleep.

07 August 2009

London-Edinburgh-London 2009, part I

LEL 2009 - day one and night one and day two and half of night two...

(For info about what happened the week before the start, read the prologue which is in the works...).

My cunning plan was to sleep in on Sunday morning, have a late breakfast and a lazy morning before the 13.30 start. However, around 5 o’clock in the morning I kind of realized that my cunning plan would have been a lot easier to carry out had I not been sharing the room in the hostel with 9 other riders, some of whom were in the 8:00 start. They started moving around, getting dressed and chatting about the upcoming ride so deep sleep was no longer achievable. Oh well, at least a snooze of 3-4 hours would be mentally refreshing so I turned over and pretended I didn’t hear zippers zipping and bags being packed and bikes being prepared. Shortly before 10 I got up, showered, got dressed and checked out.

The start was not until 13.30 so there was loads of time for a huge fry up in a greasy spoon conveniently located a few hundred meters from the hostel. I went there with Dave whom I knew from my 3 years in Halifax and a Finnish rider who was also in our room. The memories it brought back from the 3 years I spent in the UK and many a greasy breakfast in Mikes Bites in Bangor before heading out for a century or a 200k ride...

Around 1 o’clock in the afternoon we headed over to the parking lot where the start would be and at 13.30 we were off!

Riders waiting for the start

My biggest and most serious undertaking to date of a ride of this caliber. Previously I had completed a Super Randonneur series (a 200, 300, 400 and 600km ride) in 6 days on Mallorca in early May 2007. Those 4 rides were done in 30-35C heat so it was pretty hot. Later that same year I did Paris-Brest-Paris in rather wet and windy conditions, but not really worse than anyhting NW-Wales, where I lived at the time, could produce, so the conditions during PBP2007 didn’t really affect me. They were mainly disappointing ‘coz I had expected a comfy 20-24C and a slight breeze. As those who were there will know there was very little of that kind of weather. In 2008 I rode the Cascade 1200 in WA in 40C heat which was challenging in a different way. I figured that LEL2009 would be a ride much in between the 2 extremes I had encountered in my randonneuring ‘career’ so far. Especially given the reputation of the cool British summer. How wrong I was to be...

Anyway, we were off with a strong tailwind and it seemed as if everybody tried to make the most of it and put some distance in before the wind presumably would die down. The first control was Thurlby, more than 150km away, but there was a food stop at Gamlingay 68km out from the start. The countryside was gently rolling with long gentle climbs and sharp fast descents (reverse on the return!). I managed to snap a few pictures of the pack I was in, as well as a couple of self portraits.


Rolling along - Edinburgh still ~400 miles away...

I rode with Dave initially and otherwise just tried to stay out of trouble - crashing in to somebody elses wheel this early in the ride would be a bummer, to say the least. I lost Dave a few km before Gamlingay but caught up to him there as I stopped to have a cookie.

We left Gamlingay together and proceeded north. He pulled away a bit again en route - he is super strong, and I told him that he should just take off and let me do my own thing. Anyway, I caught up to him at the 1st official control at Thurlby. The controllers were seated right inside the door to make sure everybody got their stamp. My card was stamped and my time entered into the computer, then I could ditch my shoes and walk into the hallowed food hall. But before that one of the controllers offered me to refill my water bottles and put them back on my bike while I was eating. All I had to do was tell him my frame number and he would take care of it. Now that’s service!

After dinner Dave quickly got up and left for his bike while I got up and headed for a helping of strawberries with cream - we clearly had different priorities... Before the strawberries I had a big helping of that most classic of British food - Cornish pastries, of which they had numerous varieties in Thurlby. And sausage rolls! Aaahh, the memories of the late night stop around the corner from my flat in Bangor, where I had stopped on more than one occasion to get a sausage roll or two on the way home from a late night out.

Anyway, as nice as the pastries and strawberries were, I couldn’t stay there and eat forever as I had to get to Edinburgh and back so it was back to find the shoes and then it was off towards Washingborough, control #2 @ 216 km. I rode most of the way up there in splendid solitude and it was all rather uneventful. It got dark half an hour or so before I reached the control and it also started to drizzle just before I pulled in at the control. It had been slowly building during the afternoon so I figured it was somehting that would last at least the night. In the door I met Dave on his way out while I was on my way in; that would be the last I would see of him for more than a day. I got my stamp, sat down for a meal and looked at the increasing drizzle. Living in Seattle I couldn’t yet call it actual rain, but it was definitely getting closer to it. So after (another) dinner the neoprene booties came on to protect my feet, and the yellow raincoat came out too. Then it was on through the night (a la Def Leppard) towards Thorne @ 321 km.

It was proper dark now and I was riding alone through the night; occasionally I could see a tail light up ahead and occasionally I could see a flickering front light behind me if I looked over my shoulder. I was riding through East Anglia, old Danish territory from when the Vikings used to occupy the country in the early 1000’s. I wondered that if all the people - sound asleep behind their UPVC double-glazed windows - had known that finally, after all these centuries, a descendant of the occupiers had returned to conquer the entire country from S to N, would their sleep have been a little bit more uneasy? Probably not, unfortunately. If I had woken them up and told them that the Viking was back they’d probably told me off and to go home and sleep it off. So I decided not to let out any wild screams or yells. However, it was a thought that kept me warm as I pedalled through the villages and towns all bearing the mark of old Danish place names: -by, -thorpe, -toft, -ness.

In Wragby there was a quick checkpoint where I got a yellow sticker in my control card, but not a real control. Then it was Northwards again, through the night. A rider had passed me in the checkpoint and I could see his taillight up ahead, and a headlight some distance behind me if I looked back (but why would I?).

It was raining steadily now and it was actually getting almost impossible to read the cue sheet while I was riding. My cue sheet holder is of the minimalistic type, so the font size on the cue sheet necessarily must also be of the smaller kind. The cue sheet holder is a bent plexiglass plate where the cue sheet clips in under the bent part of the plexiglass. The sheet itself was in a plastic bag to protect it from the rain, but the rain drops on the plexiglass made it virtually impossible to read the sheet in the dark using my helmet light. I resorted to memorize the next to instructions and then stop after the 2nd one to use my front light to ‘read up’ on the next section. It all worked very well.

The navigation panel (yes, I could read that cue sheet)...
The navigation 'system'

I passed the towns of Middle and Market Rasen, famous for the 5.2 Richter Scale earthquake of February 2008. No earthquakes prevented the ride this night, and there was still a decent tailwind although the wind had died down a lot. The tires (tyres for UK readers) were singing on the road and water was splashing from the front tire (tyre), making small twisting, twirling diamonds in the beam of my head light as they were flunged into the air in front of me.

A few km outside of Thorne the cue sheet read ‘Soon R - 0.2 km’. Soon Right? What was that supposed to mean? And soon as in ‘be aware, soon there is a right after 0.2 km’, or ‘ride 0.2 km, then wait for an opportune moment to turn right soon after that?’ There was of course a road leading off to the right after exactly 0.2 km, but since I thought this was too soon I continued onwards for another 1-2 km, then realised that this distance under no circumstances qualified as ‘soon’ and turned around. I then rode down the road I had passed a few minutes earlier and it turned out to be the right(!) one.

While I was wondering about the intentions of the cue sheet author for that particular instructions I managed to hit a pothole (one of very few) and my rear tire promptly flattened. #%$^@&$@&$@#$# and #@@!@$#@#... I hate flats, especially in the rain, and especially if they are also in the dark, and especially when I’m somewhat tired from more than 300 km of riding and especially when there’s more than 1100 km to go and especially when I then discover that I only have 2 spare tubes and that I have *no* spare tubes in my drop bags ‘coz I’m too forgetful when I pack my drop bags and I start computing my ‘flat rate’ and I then discover that I may run out of tubes after 900 km with 500 km to go. Then my pulse rate goes up a little and I’m glad that nobody else is around... I fixed the flat while a few riders passed me; all of them asked if I had everything I needed - randonneurs are a friendly bunch. Then I zoomed towards Thorne and reached it in the early morning (Monday morning).

In Thorne (321 km) I had my card stamped, as usual, and sat down for dinner again. In Thorne it was Pea & Ham soup and a gulasch and I wolfed it down. I was soaking wet from rain and sweat, but my Randonneurs USA wool jersey did a fabulous job of keeping me warm and toasty even though it was wet and damp. Wool is excellent in the UK during the summer! Also my rainlegs were doing a tremendous job of keeping my thighs and knees dry. There were a bunch of riders sleeping everywhere on the floor, and a few walking around with tiny eyes wrapped in blankets - they were the ones who had arrived so early that they could rent a cot and a blanket for 5 quid in total - for a few hours of precious sleep. I had no firm plan for how long I would go the first day before I went to sleep, but was certain that I wasn’t going to sleep after only 321 km.

I spotted a female rider I was sure that I had seen somewhere else before but it wasn’t possible for me to figure out where, although I tried hard to figure out where it could be. In the end I left for the 4th Control at Coxwold and 411 km without figuring out where I had seen her before. As soon as I was a few km outside of the control I realised that it was Michelle from NY, who had also ridden the Cascade 1200 when I rode it in 2008.

It was full daylight now, but it was still raining pretty constantly and my feet were very wet - or rather, enclosed in the neoprene booties they were having problems breathing properly so they were actually soaking in condensation. I could feel them start to ‘soften up’ a bit - a sure sign of beginning trench foot, which I had suffered from during Paris-Brest-Paris in 2007. Oh well, not much to do about it, except remember to change to dry socks in Coxwold where I had a drop bag.

But that wasn’t my main problem. I was sleepy, very sleepy, and despite the daylight I had a hard time staying away on the bike. After about 14 km there was a gas station (petrol station for UK readers) and I decided to pull over for a Coke and maybe a Mars bar or two. Just the thought of it invigorated me a bit but I decided to spend the money anyways and sat down for a few moments of rest with my eyes closed while I ate and drank.

I was sitting next to my rear wheel and during a cursory glance my eye spotted a weird ‘wart’ on the side of the rear tire. A closer inspection revealed that a part of the tube was protruding through a hole in sidewall, only being kept somewhat in place by a small piece of rubber still spanning the hole in the sidewall - a #&^$%@!#^ disaster waiting to happen at any moment. The pot hole I had hit just before Thorne apparently had caused more damage than I first imagined, and I hadn’t spotted the sidewall damage because it was dark and only a small hole - but it would become a lot bigger very fast it the tube suddenly exploded. I did have a spare tire, but I decided that it would be easier to just put a boot in the hole and then keep going on the tire. I folded a 5 pound note up and let the air out of the tire, then put the boot in and the tube and tire back in place. Then I got the CO2 cartridge and the adapter out of the tool kit and while I screwed the CO2 cartrige on to the adapater I dropped it just at the moment the seal in the cartridge was broken by the adapter - resulting in all of the CO2 fizzling out before I had a chance to pick it up from the ground. Another round of #%$^#^ etc. followed, for I had now only 1 CO2 cartridge left for 1100 km. I did have a small pump, so I decided to use that and save the cartridge for a real emergency. As the pressure in the tire approached 110 PSI (after a couple of minutes of pumping), the valve in the tube came out (due to the motions of the pump) and so did 110PSI of air in a gigantic hiss and I was back to square one... I’ll leave it to the imagination of the reader to guess my choice of words. Now, off came the rear wheel, off came the tyre, out came the tube, in came a new one, the tire came back on and my last CO2 cartridge was used to get air in so that I could get out from the petrol station where I had now spent more than one hour. I was now down to one tube and no CO2 for the remaining 1080 km or so - and not in a particularly good mood. But at least I was now wide awake, and rode very dilligently around every single little stone and pebble I could see on the road.

35 km outside of Coxwold the cue sheet again left a little bit too much to the imagination, where a lane to Stockton-on-Forest ideally should be on the right side, but no such lane appeared. After riding back and forth for a bit, and debating with a Brit and another rider we decided that the road to the right was the right one. Luckily, after a mile a big sign said Stockton-on-Forest and it was now full steam ahead towards Coxwold which I reached around lunch time Monday, more or less 24 hours after departing Cheshunt.

Coxwold control
Coxwold Control

After getting my stamp I headed directly for my drop bag where I had dry socks (fabulous to feel the dry fabric against my soaking wet skin) and a dry wool jersey - the famous blue SIR issue! I then managed to buy a spare tube from the control, so now at least I had 2 tubes to get me to Edinburgh and back. Then it was time for some personal hygiene and after applying a deliciously large ‘helping’ of vaseline in strategic locations I sat down for lunch. At Coxwold they had rhubarb crumble with custard... Another memory, from my time as a scientist on board various research vessels in the Irish Sea or the North Sea, appeared - yum! They also had delicious sandwiches, but it was the crumble that I was looking forward to - it was A-mazing and I felt quite invigorated and ready to tackle the next stage towards Middleton Tyas at 463 km, only another 52 km up the road.

While I had been eating Michelle had arrived, so I went over and said hi to her. She vaguely remembered me, which is not so strange given that the Cascade 1200 in 2008 was ridden in 40-45C heat which boiled the brains of most of us. We left the control together, except that we were held up by the mayor who wanted a picture of Michelle and him before she left the control. I managed to sneak in the background and immortalize the SIR jersey in the image...

Then it was off through the now gently rolling countryside. We had left the flatlands of Lincolnshire for North Yorkshire and the terrain was now becoming more varied as we were approaching the Pennine Hills. The rain had also stopped and I actually had to stop once to apply some sun screen, which was a very nice. We caught up to a couple of Canadians and as we were rolling down a hill I hit a pot hole and felt the tire bottom out completely. We rode on for another km or two, and then stopped to double check the cue sheet for a set of complicated instructions. I looked down and noticed that the tire looked suspiciously flat-ish. Crap! Another one, only a few hours after the first (and 2nd, so to speak...).

Sunshine - and the road behind me!
Sunshine - and the road behind me...

I notified the others that I had a flat and had to pull over. Michelle offered her help (she used to be a bicycle mechanic) and we got the wheel and tire off and inspected the tire. It had a big cut in it from a small pebble still embedded in the tire, so I pulled out my spare tire and Michelle put the tire and tube back on. Then I very carefully pumped the tire up, keeping my fingers crossed that I wouldn’t rip out the valve this time - which I didn’t. 5 minutes later we were on the road again, and soon we rolled into Middleton Tyas @ 463km sometime in the mid afternoon, Monday.

After yet another stamp and late lunch / early dinner it was back to the bikes. The sun was now shining a lot and it was great walking around in socks feeling the concrete heating everything up and drying out the feet a bit while the shoes had been sitting in the sun, drying out. I spent a fair bit of time getting the bike ready, just enjoying the sun drying me out a bit, and feeling the wet wool slowly becoming drier.

Then it was off towards Alston @ 539 km and what I had decided to be my overnight stop. We were definitely getting into the hills now, there were no more flat parts, but there were plenty of short, steep hills to conquer. We were now in County Durham. The route took us through (and past) Barnard Castle and past the Bowes Museum; both splendid buildings. After that we made a left turn and the route sheet now stated that the Alston control was 32 km away, much of it in an uphill direction... As the kilometers flowed behind us in the maelstroem of our pedalling the trees gradually disappeared and the landscape changed to large hills, moorland, stone fences and hundreds of small white dots - sheep. To a large extent it felt as if I was back riding in Wales in the Snowdonia National Park, with the exception that the hills in County Durham did not have any mountains to top them off, like the mountains of Snowdonia.

The last 15-20 km towards Alston was a constant uphill, with a rather strong side-/tailwind. Cattle grids had to be negotiated by tired riders aiming for the Alston control and an overnight sleep stop - like me. Around 7.30 pm we pulled into Alston which was an outdoor centre located on a hill side - quite exposed to the wind as I would feel later in the ride. After being stamped in we then sat down for dinner in the tiniest control of LEL. The dining room was very small, completely filled with 6-7 tables with benches, and packed with riders eating and drinking. Michelle and I sat down with 4 British riders, busy Tweeting their status and updating each other about everybody elses progress via Twitter. Our food orders were taken and food soon started to arrive, not always quite what we had ordered, and sometimes more than one item arrived, which was OK with me as I ended up with 2 crumbles with custard!

The others at the table started discussing when they should depart for their overnight stop at Eskdalemuir - 633 km from the start and 94 km from Alston. It would be a 5 hour ride and I was glad I had decided to take a brief nap; I reckoned until midnight, then do the 5 hour ride to Eskdalemuir and have breakfast there, then proceed to Edinburgh.

After dinner I went outside to my bike to grab a few items for my sleep and noticed how cold it had become during the 45 minutes or so we had been inside. The sun was setting and the controllers said that it could become down to 2-3C at night when the sky was clear as was the case. I wavered for a minute - I was really sleepy after having been awak since Sunday morning 6 am - now it was Monday evening around 8pm so I was pushing 38 hours without sleep. I was, on the other hand, also not very keen on riding through the night in potentially 2-3C temperatures, most likely alone. I searched in my bag for my ‘lobster gloves’ but couldn’t find them and realized they were still in my Coxwold drop bag. That did it, I decided to join Michelle and the brits and push on for Eskdalemuir right away, then sleep once I got there.

Ten minutes later we were on the road, descending on a 15% hill towards and through Alston. There was a 300 m stretch with cobblestones in Alston where I walked the bike; didn’t want to risk anything as I was down to one tube, and also not totally sure on my reactions due to being tired. After Alston there was a long stretch with generally undulating hills, climbing for 15 km or so, but at a gentle rate so it wasn’t too hard. Michelle and I made good progress, occasionally catching up with the Brits we had shared a table with. We were now so far north that the daylight lasted significantly longer than it had on Sunday night; at 10.30 pm there was still some light and it wasn’t yet completely black.

We rode an 18 km stretch on the A7, a major road connecting Edinburgh to the rest of the country. Michelle and I pulled over along the road, me to wolf down a power gel with caffeine, Michelle to bring put her secret weapon - espresso beans. She asked if I wanted some and I wasn’t quite sure what she meant. She then explained that she’d just chew them in order to stay awake. I took a handful and they were absolutely awful to chew and taste, but hey, if it can keep you awake on the bike then that’s worth it. We then proceeded with the last 25 km toward Eskdalemuir.

It was now around midnight and despite the espresso beans and the power gel I was extremely sleepy. Not physically tired at all, just very very sleepy. My eyelids were as heavy as if they were made of concrete, and I had to concentrate very hard to stay on the left side of the road, and not drift around aimlessly all over the road. Fortunately we were on a small back road with no traffic apart from tired randonneuses and randonneurs so the main danger was to fall asleep while riding and fall off the bike onto the road. At one point I was riding behind Michelle and 2 other riders and although I knew that we were all going in a straight line on a straight section of the road, their taillights wandered in all directions, incl. up and down, in front of me. I was completely unable to follow the cue sheet or read my odometer to figure out how far we had to go. Then, about 10-15 km before Eskdalemuir my sleepness suddenly lifted like a curtain and I was wide awake for the last stretch into the control, and I even managed to read the cue sheet and my odometer.

Around 2 am Tuesday morning we finally pulled into Eskdalemuir, where several hundred bicycles were parked outside. When we came inside it looked like a war zone. People were sleeping *everywhere*: sitting upright on chairs, on the floor, in cots, under benches, under tables, on tables and in window sills.

Sleeping at Eskdalemuir - 633km
Chilling at Eskdalemuir...

It was difficult to find a place to sit and have dinner, but Michelle and I managed to find a corner of a table that wasn’t being used for sleeping by an exhausted rider. We sat down for a quick late night dinner, giggling at the sight of the other riders in all thinkable sleeping positions around us. During dinner the tiredness hit me hard and I needed to find a place to sleep - fast - before I collapsed. The window sill suddenly looked like an excellent option as there was simply no floor space left inside the control. Somebody had put a chair up there (for what reason?) but I lifted it out and placed it on a table. Then I laid down on the window sill, which was quite deep (hoorah for thick-walled stone buildings) and wide, rolled up my raincoat as a pillow and looked at the clock. It was 3 am Tuesday morning so I had been awake for about 45 hours and had ridden 633 km since the start Sunday afternoon. Then I fell asleep.
Me sleeping in EskdalemuirYours truly sleeping in Eskdalemuir (courtesy of bahzob, BikeRadar - Thnx!)