Thursday, August 6, 2009

London-Edinburgh-London: The Ride Report

The completion of L-E-L marks my most significant athletic achievement to date. After several seasons of completing brevets and ultra races, this was my first attempt at an event of over 600K. With almost two years of anticipation and planning, it was a challenge with organizational, mental and physical dimensions. As I packed for the journey, I was certain I was forgetting something critical. As it turned out, I was as prepared as I could be and had all that I would need. After slogging it out through some pretty brutal rains and cold temperatures, I finished in 100h 45m on a beautiful sunny afternoon in great spirits with a group of amazing cyclists.

Day One “How hard could it be?”

The field of just under 600 riders was organized to depart in two main waves on Sunday (8:00 am) and (1:30 pm). Within each of these two groups, riders were subdivided into smaller starts of 50 or so in 15 minute increments. After signing in at the Lee Valley Hostel around noon, I set off at 1:45. At first, the route shoots through a fairly congested area of suburban London, but before too long, we were riding amid endless fields and breathing fresh air. With low, grey clouds threatening rain, it was not a question of whether but rather when we would get wet.

Enthusiastic and eager, I took off at a fairly fast clip out of the gate. In no time, I was passing riders who had set off in the previous group. At the first control at Gamlingay (65K), I took the opportunity to fill my bottles and use the toilet. (This would become a recurrent theme). After a few minutes, I was off again as the rain had begun to come down in earnest. In this first stretch of road, I was alternating between riding along solo and pedaling with others. I was enticed to ride quite fast with a few Russian and British riders for an hour or so pushing big gears. The benefit of this approach was to propel me further down the road and to make up good time. The downside was that I was working too hard too early in the journey. Eventually reason won out and I let the rabbits go and rode solo for a while. I hit my first roundabouts as a solo navigator and these proved to be an interesting challenge.

After riding and navigating solo for a spell, I began to question whether I was in fact still on route. During a short lull in confidence, I doubled back for a kilometer or two and ran into Audax UK rider Robin Tomes coming towards me confirming that I was in fact on the correct route. It turned out that Robin and I had much in common and so fell into riding at a similar pace. We swapped jokes and stories and ended up riding together for the entire adventure. Robin’s ace navigational skills were of tremendous value and convinced me that GPS is the way to go in the future. As we pedaled, Robin shared what was to be the mantra of our ride in the form of a quote from a fellow rider he overheard at the first control. “1400K: how hard could it be?”

After a long stretch of night riding in the pouring rain it was nice to stop at the Washingborough control (216K). Here I met Israeli cyclist and RUSA member Lev Broitman who not only rides a beautiful black Indy Fab, but also follows my blog! “You’re George Swain?!?” What a trip. Robin and I said goodbye to Lev and slogged on through the wet night arriving at that Thorne Rugby Club (321K) control at about 3:00 a.m. soaking wet and ready for sleep. After a hearty meal, we rented two blankets and were shown to the locker room floor where we would spend the night.

Day Two: “Are you sure that was a left before the 23K climb?”

The alarm went off after about 1.5 hour of sleep and I shuffled down the hall in my cold, damp clothes looking for coffee. It was grey and wet when we set off, but the sky would clear later in the day and we would have several hours of dry riding through a lovely stretch of English countryside. We passed through quaint villages filled with old stone cottages, some roofed in thatch. After lunch at the Middleton Tyas control (463K) we passed Barnard Castle and began climbing in earnest into the northern Pennines. The main work of the day was a gradual exposed climb over Yad Moss. The roads on Yad Moss are outstanding and quite enjoyable to cycle. The views are panoramic, the roads weave, and the tarmac is smooth as butler. As long as you stay clear of the sheep that range freely, you’re set. After climbing Yad Moss, we descended into the village of Alston where we would stop at the control for a meal of Shepherd’s Pie.

The next stretch through moorland England was somewhat hilly, but the transition into Scotland was abrupt and dramatic. It was twilight as we crossed the border and it was not long before we were out of our saddles and gasping for breath on climbs of 15-18%. Up and down we went as we gained attitude through the dense wooded countryside. There was a 23K stretch from the final turn on the route sheet to the control through what turned out to be completely desolate forest. I was desperately hoping we didn’t make an error since there was no one to be seen along this stretch. We pulled into Eskdalemuir (633K) after midnight. Again we ate; again there were no beds. We found spots to fill between sleeping riders and shivered for three hours before waking to take on another day.

Day Three: “Would you like a wee dram of single malt in that?”

After a truly lousy sleep, we set off into a beautiful morning sunrise with the wind at our backs. The trip from Eskdalemuir to Dalkeith (Edinburgh) is breathtakingly beautiful. The vistas are expansive, the hills dramatic and the valleys seem to roll on forever. It was a joy to cycle northbound through the early morning light. Between Eskdalemuir and Dalkeith, there was a secret control at Traquair (678K) set up in a local village hall with a very nice staff and wonderful food. The porridge was outstanding and I don’t ever remember eating something so welcome. The descent into Dalkeith is precipitous and exhilarating.

Shirley Rinaldi, one of the teachers I work with at home, was visiting with family near Edinburgh so we arranged to meet up in Dalkeith for a little visit. It was fabulous to see Shirley there with her family waving American flags and cheering on riders when we arrived. After checking in at the control (716K), I spend a few minutes catching up with Shirley and then took a much-needed shower and changed kit which had been sent forward to the control in a drop bag.

The journey from Dalkeith back to Eskdalemuir was a painful slog through hell. It wasn’t just the climbs that we knew from our northbound journey to expect. The headwinds were merciless off the moors and it became clear to us that we were pedaling DOWN while northbound riders were coasting UP the very same hills we had climbed with ease a few hours earlier. Clearly, this was a place of misery. On the return leg, I was again offered porridge, but this time with a “wee dram of single malt” in it. After the past several hours of riding I could see why that combination may have developed. Despite the pain, I declined the Scotch.

After checking in at Eskdalemuir (799K) one final time we decided to push on to Alston to stay ahead of the largest wave of cyclists since we knew how tight the sleeping arrangements would become that night. The following day, we heard reports of over 200 riders “sleeping” in that tiny space and knew we had made the right decision. It remained somewhat dry as we rode through the hills of southern Scotland and started to rain again in earnest as we headed into northern England. It was wet, it was dark, there were ugly headwinds and I was cold to the bone. Hocking the bike on Ebay seemed like a very appealing option. While gorgeous, it was truly miserable. Knowing that the Alston control would be filled, and realizing that a third night without sleep would be brutal, we began to imagine the options.

Just as we dismounted to walk the bikes up a short dangerous patch of pave (cobblestones) in the town of Alston, we were approached by an angel of mercy who asked, “Would you boys like a room?” Apparently, her hotel was full-up, but she called a friend who had one more room at her B & B around the corner. At 15 pounds each, we didn’t think twice. We were introduced to the owner, a lovely, kind diminutive English matron who served us tea and homemade biscuits at 11:45 pm and placed our wet shoes into a warming closet to dry.

Day Four: “It’s a fine line between extreme and holy sh*t”

We awoke well-rested and clean after a full five hours sleep and sat down with two Belgian cyclists to a full English breakfast complete with hand-pressed coffee and warm, dry clothes. After our meal, we cycled 3K to the Alston control (894K) and felt as if we were walking into a refugee camp. It was hard to choke back the laughter, but after signing in and lubing my chain, I was off with a fresh set of legs. Riding over Yad Moss was a complete pleasure. The roads were smooth and the stretch involves some gentle and pleasant descents. Our Russian friend Anton flew by and shared an “almost untranslatable” Russian proverb with us to the effect that “in endurance activities, there is a fine line between extreme and holy sh*t!” At times, it felt like we crossed that frontier. We arrived at Middleton Tyas (969K) to see one of Robin’s riding buddies and some of his “mates.” We joined them for a second full English breakfast and heard about the weather warnings for heavy rains and serious flooding across much of the UK for later that afternoon. 2 inches or rain was predicted. Luckily it would not get that bad.

After a long day in the saddle, we had dinner at the Thorne control (1110K) and made the difficult decision to push on. At only 8:00 pm, it was really too early to throw in the towel for the day, but we were tired and sore and it was raining (again!) It seemed critical that we make it to the next control before sleeping which would leave only 200K to the finish after sleep rather than 300K. As others riders sat down to pitchers of fresh draft beers, we suited up in our wet clothes, I rubbed my sore legs and we headed out with NC Randonneurs Mike Dayton and John Ende into the misty rain. To our great surprise, the skies cleared as we rode to reveal a beautiful sunset on the horizon. We rode hard for 100K discussing past rides and making future plans. I was especially eager to hear all about the Csascade 1200K which is now firmly on my calendar for the future. We met up with several other cyclists, including Spencer Klassen on fixed, as we neared the next control. We arrived at Washingborough around 11:00 pm Spencer bending his chain ring a few kilometers from the control. After some welcome food, we were shown a large open space with cots (and no blankets!); I guess you can’t have everything. We slept for several hours, grabbed a quick bite to eat with some coffee and then head out for the final 200K.

Day Five: “Time to put this fish in the boat!”

I wouldn’t call the legs I left Washingborough with “fresh” but there was only 200K left to the finish so “how hard could it be?” Robin and I rode this next stretch along with Mike and John and their fellow NC randonneurs Jimmy and Will. It was a very pleasant ride socially; those guys from NC know how to have a good time! But it was physically pretty brutal for me personally. I was developing significant pain in my knees that would eventually grind me to a rather embarrassingly slow pace. At one point, it felt like someone was driving daggers into my knees with each turn of the pedals. I realized around mid-day when worries of a DNF began to enter my addled brain that the ibuprofen had worn off. I quickly swallowed 600mg and kept on riding.

When Robin and I stopped at the penultimate control at Gamlingay (1336K), it was all I could do to imagine getting back on that bike one more time. I ate several ham sandwiches, drank a fizzy orange soda and a few cups of Joe, massaged my legs and got up and walked out the last door we would cross until the finish. At this point, our ride amounted to 60K, a typical Sunday club ride. As we rolled out of the control, with sun out and stomachs full, something very strange happened. Not only had the ibuprofen kicked in but a serious burst of adrenalin brought life to my legs I did not think possible. I felt like I was being shot from a cannon. Our new friend “Cap’n” John Ende pointed out that “it was time to put this fish in the boat!” Robin had to warm me several times to keep it under control, fearing that I would wear myself down and bonk before the end. Robin and Mike and Jimmy and I were able to ride strong for the final stretch and stopped just a few kilometers from the finish at a pub where Mike bought everyone a drink in celebration. We had done it, 1400-freaking-kilometers. After a brief celebration, we rode the last few miles into the control.

I finished the ride in 100h45m. Before LEL began I had several “goals” in mind. Some related to time: under 90 hours, under 100 hours, and others related to finishing: NO DNF. There was no way for me to be fully prepared for what this ride threw at me. In all, I felt as prepared as I could have been. My body was well trained, my bike was solid, comfortable and reliable, and my accessories were well-suited to the journey. I made several new friends and enjoyed the hell out of the event which was far more important than pushing an abstract time goal. Randonneuring is more fun than racing and I need to remember that while there’s a place for both in my life, the goals of one should not affect the enjoyment of the other. I’ll be back in 2013!


  1. Fantastic ride report George. I've made a link on my blog - hope you don't mind.

  2. Great report George. Your experiences mirror mine almost exactly - reading it was almost like doing the ride again (which I've also done in my sleep a couple of times in the last week!). A great summary of a truly memorable event.

  3. Brilliant account, really enjoyed reading it. Thanks.

  4. "Randonneuring is more fun than racing and I need to remember that" If this is all you learned from riding LEL you have accomplished a LOT!!!

    Welcome to the REAL world of randonneuring.


  5. Let's try that again...

    A fine read George, glad you enjoyed yourself. Tell me, were you the chap Paul and I passed on the stretch to Wragby who said "it's no use, I have to go back"?


  6. Hummers, you may have passed me by Wragby, but I'm sure I said nothing about "going back!" I was riding the white Indy Fab with mudguards and 30mm tires. Cheers, George

  7. Wow, George! You've really inspired me. I have decided that in 2013 I am going to read the report of your 2nd L-E-L.

    But seriously... this was a great report. Congratulations on an incredible ride!


  8. Wonderful account. Well done. Reading stories of these longer rides is an inspiration. Hoping to work my way up to these long distances over time.

  9. Great stuff George. If my riding buddy and I are fortunate enough to make it there in 2013, we'll buy you a beer...or three.