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.

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