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!)

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