Initial inspiration to do the event came from a friend back in Aus who did Paris Brest Paris. The most well known of the long Distance Audaxes going back to the 1890s. Then back in the UK I came across the LEL and realised that due to COVID it was delayed and was due to be ran this year so on a spur of the moment I decided to enter.
LEL 2022 was a 1540km, 14,500m climbing route between, yep you guessed it, London to Edinburgh (ish) and back. It is run every four year and has entrants from 40 countries coming to attempt. This year it could be entered as either the standard Audax speed at 125 hours or as a fast entrant of 100 hours. The catch in the 100 hour entry is if you come in one second over you are classed as a DNF on the record books even though well under the 125 hours. In an equally spur of the moment decision I entered the 100 hour group. In the philosophy of Mark Beaumont when planning the Round the World Cycling record. ‘If you give yourself a target of 100 days you’ll do it in 100. So he targeted 80 days’. I wanted to challenge myself.
Needless to say as soon as I did this life got in the way with sickness work pressure etc stopping me from any really exceptional training. So apart from general consistency, structured training and regular weekly 4-5 hour rides I did 3 >200km rides to get my bike and kit in order including one overnight night. It would have to be enough. I would have to remain within my limits.
The organisation of LEL is phenomenal. 20 controls across the distance where you stamp your Brevet card. Each providing food, water and a space to sleep and amazing volunteer support. The 1800 riders started in cohorts of 50 riders in 15 min blocks from 5am (when the 100 hour riders leave). My experience of the race is likely very different at the front of the event where I would turn up to a control and have maybe 20 other riders there at any one time so benefited from the attention of many volunteers helping with bottle refill, getting food etc. and could be in and out in 20 minutes if I wanted. Further back in the ‘Bulge’ of riders they would have 200 riders seeking the same and so taking longer having the queue somewhat. So while the pressure of 100 hours was there, success or failure was down to me and nothing else.
I rode through to Malton (370km) where I had a Bag Drop. The first stage out of London was uneventful. The group went off like a bat out of hell and left me standing. My strategy was to ride my own ride at all times within my own level of capability. Many of the riders who shot off I was to see again in different levels of disrepair through the next 4 days… There was a headwind all the way North. Though not excessive was there and so the Lincolnshire Fens while total flat for 100km did not offer speed opportunity I hoped. All in all it was going to plan and my carefully developed excel sheet was almost perfect. Until now!
I grabbed 1.5 hours sleep at Malton before heading out about 1am for my first wakeup call. Expecting a hilly course I did expect the +20% climbs heading across the north York Moors and riding through the night meant I didn’t get the views to go with it. Next was the Pennines heading for the Scottish borders. Road closures mean that the original standard route over Yad Moss was closed and a diversion of 3-4km added 400m of brutal elevation gain. The day was also hot and the rest the week was to remain peaking at about 30 degrees every day. Pennines conquered it was over the border into Scotland.
Through the Scottish borders and into the evening crossing the Forth Road Bridge into Dunfermline, the most Northerly point. The organisers wanted this year to be 1500km so had to actual go past Edinburgh. Halfway and a well earned 3.5 hours sleep, a shower and a bib change before heading home.
My Meticulous planning was long gone. I had foolishly not accounted for the severity of the climbing and but I still had some time in hand. Heading through Edinburgh city centre at 5am was non eventful and flowing fine before heading back out into the borders with some beautiful but tough riding. Back into England without fanfare. No ‘Welcome to England’ sign on the back roads! The day was hotter again and the Pennines remained as tough as before. Knowing I had a big day (and night) infront of me I have to confess to walking parts of the 24% pinches. Just to save my legs of course. Across the North York Moors again and the fatigue was catching up. Lack of sleep meant seeing things in the dark and lack of focus so I stopped again at Malton. I had cracked the 2 hardest days. I had earned my 1 hours sleep but couldn’t afford more and eat further into my buffer.
Day 4 or is it still Day 3? I know now what is in front of me and I just have to keep the legs turning the pedals. The wind had turned on us but fortunately was not as severe as the way north but it was hot and over 30 degrees. The volunteers are watching us closely now they know we are exhausted, our thinking is confused and decision making is practically impossible so they are managing us through each control. Whilst I am riding alone mainly, there is a cohort of riders around me that has been constant at each control and passing each other as we all have different high and low points and we watch out for each other on the road. I know that to make the 100 hours I will have to ride through the night but after clearing the Fens I am confused and delirious and the volunteers guide me through the control and into a 30 minute power nap. It revives me before heading into the final 130km stretch with hours to go. About 10-15km out I crashed in a moment of distraction and sleeplessness. I was having trouble maintaining forward momentum. My brain was disconnected. The adrenaline from the crash though revived me and I focussed and rode hard to the end. I had finished! 98 hours and 58 minutes. I had made it with literally an hour to spare. It was enough.
Slowly the remnants of my cohort came in and we ate and shared war stories bonded by the experience. The final DNF rate appears to be 40% but many still made the finish line but out of time. 100s of people riding over 5-6 days to become an LEL Finisher and get that coveted medal.
The support offered by the volunteers through was amazing and selfless and made the event a real experience for all. The next LEL is to be held in 2025 but I the meantime I have found the Audax community to be totally inclusive and supportive for those wanting to dip their toes into Long Distance Cycling and see what they are capable of!