Sunday, 30 July 2017

30 Jul - 4 Aug: Alex's London-Edinburgh-London

Alex writes: I entered London-Edinburgh-London (LEL) in September 2015, just 18 months after I had starting cycling, and with only a handful of 200 km audaxes, and one 300 km audax, to my name.

LEL is Audax UK’s flagship grand randonée event; it takes place every four years. The goal is to ride from Loughton, on the outskirts of London, to the outskirts of Edinburgh, and back again. This year’s official course was 1440 km (895 miles) and was mostly out-and-back, except for the northern end (a loop in Scotland) and the southern end (which has dog leg via Cambridge on the return). I would have 117 hours and 5 minutes to complete the event.

LEL provided a long-term cycling goal for me to aim for, and with help and advice from my audax mentors Nick W (of this club and Cambridge Audax) and postrestant (of Audax Club Bristol), I slowly worked up to tougher challenges: audaxing every month to achieve a first super randonneur series (of 200, 300, 400 and 600 kms) in 2016, and then a second series this year including a gruelling Easter Arrow which usefully previewed a portion of the LEL route.

By the start of LEL I had built and fettled a bike and kit specifically for it, had developed a spreadsheet model so I was comfortable with the “maths” of the event, and had accumulated 9,000 km in my legs for the year. I was as well prepared as I could be. It would, as ever, be nice to be more powerful and less heavy – I’d have to hope what I had, was enough …

Four of us from CTC Cambridge were riding the event: me, John S, Nick W and Nigel. Since Nick, Nigel and I had similar start times we got the train together from Cambridge to Cheshunt and then rode to the event start in Loughton. This 12 km route has a hill in the middle of it and the three of us took a different approach to this pesky steepness: Nigel scampered up it with his usual high-cadence, I followed more slowly and Nick (riding fixed) walked.

Since we had registered the day before, all there was to do today was to wait for our start times, get scanned in to the starting pen, and then set off. Nick started in the 12:15 wave, and Nigel and I were underway at 12:45.

Nick (in red) departs as one of the 12:15 group

Loughton – St Ives (99 km)

I was keen to follow the advice of Vélocio at the start, particularly his 6th maxim:

“ Ride within yourself, especially in the first hour. ”

And so I was quite pleased when I noticed I hadn’t started my satellite tracker as this gave me a good excuse to stop and let the other riders in my group go ahead while I turned it on, relieving any pressure to “keep up”.

Even so, it wasn’t long before I found myself riding with a group of French riders wearing Paris-Brest-Paris gilets – a sign, I thought, that they knew what they were doing. Strangely though they had a habit of caning themselves up every incline and taking every descent gingerly on the brakes – the very opposite of energy-efficient cycling. Annoyed, I bustled past to ride more sensibly but found every red light at every junction and road works was against me, so they would always rejoin me, chatting away. As this happened a fourth time at a level crossing (inevitably, a two train wait) it started raining and my mood blackened … I felt I was making poor progress and that this didn’t augur well for the ride as a whole.

But by Much Hadham we were back on familiar roads, and as we passed Standon and joined the B1368 I felt confident I knew what to do to get full speed from the road, being familiar with its every ramp, dip and bend. Now the rain had passed and with a nice tailwind I pushed the pace up and felt I was leaving the London doldrums behind, getting back on schedule.

Before long I found myself riding with a rider from Oxford named Chris, one of whose distinguishing characteristics was his apparent need to carry milk with him (whatever for?). I showed him the shortcut under the underpass at Fenstanton, and – on emerging – was hailed by John J enjoying a pint with Sue at the King Bill. John pressed a pint into my hand a took a photo (does this count as outside assistance?). Feeling encouraged, I pressed on to St Ives.

At the St Ives control both Eva and Ian D were volunteering. It’s the volunteers that make the ride and it’s often said their task is as hard – or maybe harder – than that of the riders. Certainly seeing what I saw throughout the event, I can believe that, even if – right now – everything seemed calm and orderly: optimistic riders chatting excitedly, looking fresh.

St Ives – Spalding (61 km)

Ah the good old Fens - with a firm tailwind the going was good, the skies big and the dusk rather attractive. This was nice and easy!

But the Fens were lending us time; and part of me wondered if they were going to want to collect on that debt later, as a mistake in my tweet of the time hinted:

Spalding – Louth (83 km)

The departure from Spalding was frustrating – again with every traffic light in town against us and bikes seemingly incapable of triggering the under-road sensors.

After a while I teamed up with Ivo Miesen, an audax ancien well-known for his photography. He had bought a proper DSLR and “a selection of lenses” on the ride with him and this fascinated me – I’d love to be able to combine photography and cycling and Ivo’s answer seemed surprisingly simple: bring the kit with you and just suck up the weight.

Chatting away and riding at a nice pace, we found after an hour or so we’d accumulated a substantial train behind us. We dropped back for a well-deserved spell sitting in, but the peloton suddenly increased in pace and splintered. I passed most of these riders later, stopped for a breather to recover from their fast pace. It never ceases to amaze me how many audax riders ride inefficiently.

It was now properly dark. The Fens gave way to the Lincolnshire Wolds, and we turned off onto the lanes for some “scenic” cycling (I later learned Nigel had cannily eyed the turn off and wisely decided to stay on the main road).

Before long we were climbing quite sharply, up Red Hill. Feeling distinctly un-heroic, I dismounted the steep bits and walked them in a bid to preserve my legs.

I arrived at Louth (@245 km) at 00:45, 12 hours from the start and nicely on schedule. I ate some tasty savoury mince and prepared to push on. Many riders were evidently treating the first 245 km as the day’s work done, and for them it was now bedtime. But not me – I was treating the initial part of the ride as a 600 km event, not a 200 – so was not planning a proper pause until Brampton. Circumstances meant I had taken a lucky decision too, as the pressure on the Louth control caused it to run out of both food and sleeping space shortly after I left.

Louth – Pocklington (97 km)

It was now 2am, and time to deploy Nick’s route hack familiar from the Easter Arrow. Rather than following the official route, this takes the (fast, flat) A18 bypassing the Wolds. At night it’s okay, but during the day it’s suicidal. Now, with hardly any traffic, it worked well and I was crossing the Humber Bridge at blue hour with Schubert playing on my Bluetooth speaker.

Humber Bridge at blue hour

Then, north of the bridge, more route hacking on main roads to go via South Cave, cutting out both climbing and distance. I paused for a pee and took a photo of the bridge as day broke.

Humber Bridge at dawn

I arrived at Pocklington at 06:45. The plan was to have two hours of refreshing sleep and press on for a proper break at Brampton.

I thus had my first experience of LEL sleeping: I ordered a bed, specified a wake-up time and was shown to an inflated mattress with a blanket, one of many in a large matrix in the sports hall. I lay down, pulled the blanket over my head and duly went to sleep.

After half an hour or so I – along with the entire dormitory – was rudely awoken by a chainsaw: tree work outside. With no chance of further sleep I’d have to hope half an hour would suffice.

At breakfast I bumped into Nigel (who had slept better) and we set off together …

Pocklington – Thirsk (67 km)

At first everything seemed very familiar, riding briskly with Nigel on attractive roads in sunny weather. But as we reached the Howardian Hills I felt my energy levels were dropping and my pace slowed. I stopped at the top of a hill to eat some snacks and watch other riders struggle up.

The Howardian Hills are quite challenging, with the grounds of Castle Howard providing a pointy switchback past its various monuments and buildings. The terrain thereafter is also decidedly lumpy and I found myself struggling, more than I thought I should be.

At Thirsk I wondered whether I was getting too tired and should try to sleep, but no – that would mean getting behind schedule: I pressed on.

Thirsk – Barnard Castle (67 km)

We were now heading northwest, and the wind – which had turned westerly – was distinctly unhelpful. The terrain remained, as a riding companion put it, “bloody hilly” and down every sharp descent I found myself thinking anxiously this would be a climb on the return route.

My speed dropped and dropped – 15 km/h … at this rate I’m not going to make it. Now the voices started: I could get a train back. What about a hotel? And a nice meal? What about stretching out between clean sheets and listening to the wind howl outside knowing I’d made a wise choice to abandon?

But then I remembered Nick’s advice on the train down: that a major reason for failing was trying to stick to a plan when circumstances changed. I resolved to abandon my intention to press on to Brampton and to try sleeping at Barnard Castle instead to see if my problem was simply tiredness, and that “a tired randonneur is a slow randonneur”.

I arrived at Barnard Castle at around 18:00, ate a huge meal, got a bed and fell instantly asleep. On waking, without thinking, I donned my gear, strode straight to my bike, set the Garmin, swung my leg over and set off.

Barnard Castle – Brampton (82 km)

To my delight my power was back. I pressed the pedals and sped forward satisfyingly: cycling was fun again. My moment of crisis had passed and from now on I never once thought I might not finish – I knew I could use sleep to regain energy as if by magic. My new approach was now simply to assess at each stop whether I was tired enough to sleep, or perky enough to ride on. I could still use my plan as a guide to the times I should be hitting at controls to be on track for a completion within the overall time limit.

It was just as well my power was back, as this stage features the headline climb of the event, over Yad Moss (a climb featured in one of Simon Warren’s Greatest Cycling Climbs books).

As I began the ascent darkness fell. The Yad Moss climb is actually pretty benign, with no steep gradient for any distance: one can just sit and spin up it. At the top, though, the weather worsened. As I crawled forward into a gusty, sleety wind, my meagre pace barely enough to power my flickering dynamo light, the moon shone down balefully on my efforts from half behind an ominous black cloud. I had to laugh: why would anybody do this for fun?

It's dark, but my Garmin tells me it's nearly time to descend Yad Moss

And after the climb, a sharp descent to Alston (England's highest town). I went for maximum speed, hoping no sheep would suddenly appear in the road to test my brakes!

Alston provided a rest-stop – not a full control but with food and sleeping facilities. I called in and was very warmly greeted. The kitchen was offering a number of snacks, including peanut butter on toast. The idea of this really appealed and so I had two rounds and a steaming mug of tea. Life was good.

Out then into the night where I was accosted by a Thai rider who had lost his companions and so his means of navigation. (It amazes me how many riders on LEL had absolutely no means of navigational aid, either electronic or paper.) Could I guide him the 30 km to Brampton? I happily agreed and we sped off into the black rainy night.

The route was twisty, fast and fun and my “good deed” in guiding my new companion was repaid when he noticed my satellite tracker had fallen of, and rode back to retrieve it from the road. Grateful, I upgraded my makeshift means of attachment with safety pins into a more secure cable-tie arrangement.

Soon we caught up with the main group of Thai riders and my wheelmate rejoined them, waving me on. I sped ahead – feeling strong still – and teamed up with a German rider for the final few kms to Brampton.

Brampton was ram-packed with riders strewn all over the floors: I was glad I had, by chance, avoided it as a sleep stop. It was well before dawn when the exit crush would begin, so I took breakfast in the quiet canteen and prepared to set off again. As I made my way out of the building I bumped into Nick and Nigel, who had both slept here. I said I’d see them on the road, filled my bidons with (foul tasting) water from the Brampton hose, and set off, destination Scotland.

Reunited in Brampton

Brampton – Moffat (75 km)

It was still dark as I set off and it was drizzling. Still, I felt content and snug in my (marvellous) Rapha Brevet Insulated Jacket. This is a flat transitional stage and I made good progress, soon arriving at the Scottish border as dawn broke.

I pressed on through a number of unprepossessing concrete-y roadside strip towns the Scots seem to favour. At one point a sleek red deer sprang out in front of me. It was another country.

Border raid

Nick had warned me before the ride about indigestion, handing me a strip of Rennies. I had doubted I’d need this with my iron stomach but now was experiencing a few sicky burps so sucked a Rennie with thanks. I’d need to watch my eating.

Before long a heard a bicycle bell pinging behind me – it was Nick! He was pedalling strongly and after a brief chat he powered ahead while I continued at a more sedate pace.

As we approached Moffat the landscape became more hilly and interesting and the grey sky began to break up suggesting a nice day was ahead. I was starting to feel tired again and reckoned – in line with my new dynamic tactics – I was in need of a nap.

At Moffat Nick, Nigel and I again coincided. I checked the online tracking to see how John S was progressing, only to see he’d abandoned. This was saddening: I’d been following his progress up the course and was fully expecting to be overtaken by him at some point. I wondered if he’d been through the same sort of crisis I had after Thirsk.

I also checked the weather forecast and saw south-westerly 70 km/h winds forecast in East Anglia for Thursday. I held the phone up to show Nick and Nigel and we exchanged knowing glances. As flatlanders we all understood what this meant …

Nick and Nigel set off for Edinburgh and I made for the dormitories for a one hour nap, which I found invigorating for the next leg …

Moffat – Edinburgh (80 km)

This stage begins with another headline climb: the Devil’s Beeftub. This, again, is a kind one, consisting of 310 m of ascent over 10 km with a very even ~3% gradient. I found myself riding with Chris again, who I hadn’t seen since Fenstanton and who was looking good, happy he was newly supplied with milk (I wondered again – what for?). I treated him to a Scottish joke (“Does Sean Connery like herbs? Only partially.”) The sun had now come out and the light on the hills was spectacular, as was the gentle descent which went on and on after the summit.

As we closed in on Edinburgh I noticed an enticing looking food shop. I stopped with some fellow riders and went inside. There was all manner of treats: biscuits, cakes and sweets. I chose a tub of ice cream (“It’s the best” the shop girl assured me) and some oat flips to enjoy in the sun. This was perhaps the high point of the ride: I felt I had time enough to indulge in a treat, the weather was summery and the landscape interesting. What fun cycling is!

What wasn’t so nice was the road surface, corrugated like the surface of a concrete brain. I felt glad to have wide, low-pressure tyres and a comfy frame but even so it was unpleasant.

At Edinburgh I was greeted by Pichy, a member of our Easter Arrows team, who had abandoned LEL due to knee problems and converted himself into a volunteer. I had taken 52.5 hours to get to Edinburgh and had 64.5 hours for the return. “You’re laughing” said Pichy. This was encouraging.

Duly fortified with a lunch of fish in cheese sauce followed by sponge and custard, I set out for the return leg.

Edinburgh – Innerleithen (46 km)

After heavy traffic to leave Edinburgh I soon found myself on very quiet lanes heading into the Borders. At the control this stage had been talked of as “rolling” but clearly this was a strange Scottish (rather than East Anglian) use of the word as the Thaxted Road this ain’t – but rather terrain which required long winchings up 200m ascents followed by full aero-tuck descents.

The weather was changeable with occasional rain showers heavy enough to need a waterproof. But in compensation the scenery was fantastic: the light played on the hills and I spied orchids and buglosses by the roadside. I felt pleasingly that I had traveled somewhere different.

The light was beginning to fade as I reached Innerleithen for a warming meal (though I eschewed the haggis pakoras on offer). It was now cold enough for me to don merino knee-warmers for the first time in the ride.

Innerleithen – Eskdalemuir (58 km)

This stage continued with more Scottish-style “rolling” landscape (i.e. a set of three 300 m peaks). Early on on this stage I was passed by a large ACME (Audax Club Mid Essex) “train” led by veteran audaxer Tomsk – however they were moving just a tad quicker than I fancied and I was enjoying riding solo rather than keeping up with others, so I settled back and plodded on at my own pace.

Route profile between Innerleithen and Eskdalemuir

I was treated to a pretty pink sunset over the looming hills, and soon thereafter found myself cycling in the dark beside a rushing stream. I stopped to faff with my helmet light and was instantly set upon by a cloud of biting midges. That would teach me to stop!

At the Eskdalemuir control there was a faint sense of panic in the air as riders decided whether to sleep here or press on. I was determined to get back to Brampton to complete the day’s loop and so after a tasty bowl of soup set off again into the night …

Eskdalemuir – Brampton (46 km)

This leg started with what felt to my tired legs like a stiff ramp, but thereafter the climbing was much easier than in the previous Borders sections, and overall it was downhill to Brampton. In the dark and in my tired state I hit some potholes during fast descents, jolting my hands and arms and testing the strength of my wheels: I wouldn’t want to get stuck out here with a mechanical.

From the very wet ground there had obviously been heavy rainfall lately, but now the weather was calm with only a light wind. I remember spookily quiet roads with long stretches of wet, pitch black tarmac studded with cats’ eyes stretching far into the distance.

I was more than 60 hours into the event and had slept for only 3½, and in my sleep-deprived state my mind started playing tricks on me. The trees seemed to be reaching out to grab me, out of the corner of my eye I saw long grey fingers withdrawing themselves into drain covers, and then in the distance down the road a stick-figure devil sketched with lines of fire stood brandishing a pitchfork. Suddenly a voice behind me said “hi!” and I shouted in shock – a cyclist had crept up behind me. “Sorry” he said – but the startle had brought me to my senses and I ground out the final kms to the control, now seeing that the devil ahead was merely a bike’s tail light reflected in the wet road.

I arrived at Brampton at 04:08 just as many riders were beginning to get up for their early starts. I secured a bed for a couple of hours and went straight to sleep.

Brampton – Barnard Castle (83 km)

After a sleep and a breakfast of bacon and eggs I met up with Chris again and we agreed to ride together. Morpheus had worked his refreshing magic once more and I was feeling good, enjoying passing other riders – for the first time in a while – and getting out of the saddle to power up the ramps on the way up to Alston. At Alston, Chris paused for supplies at the garage while I pushed ahead for the re-climb of Yad Moss. Usually I reserve my Bluetooth speaker for the night, but for this climb its use seemed merited, and Toscanini’s rather truculent recording of Mozart’s 39th Symphony seemed apt for the task. Nearing the summit I spied a van in a lay by with a couple of chairs. It turned out to be legendary audaxer Drew Buck’s pop-up café, offering free tea, coffee and flapjacks to LEL riders.

Drew Buck provides respite

This was lovely – except only black coffee was on offer and I really prefer mine white. But then Chris appeared up the hill. Got any milk? I asked. “Of course” he said, squirting some from his bidon into my cup. Suddenly the whole ride seemed to make sense.

I’m not sure exactly what was in Drew’s “magic” flapjacks but the rest of the climb went by very nicely and the pay off was a long descent to Barnard Castle. A few knowledgeable locals clapped and shouted “well done” and a local cyclist insisted on shaking my hand at a junction – it was a great stage – capped-off by finding Nick at the Barnard Castle control. We chatted and checked the weather forecast for the Fens – it was still for strong winds, but no longer for gale force ones. Hard work then, rather than an impossibility …

Barnard Castle – Thirsk (67 km)

As I left “Barnie” it was raining steadily enough to need a waterproof. I crossed the wooden bridge at Whorlton feeling much more cheerful than when I was last here and pressed on. The descents-turned-climbs I had worried about on the journey north proved to be no problem. After Yad Moss and the Scottish Borders they just seemed insignificant.

Before long the rain eased and gave way to bright sunny weather. I felt the need for a hedge-break and started looking for a suitable stop, when I saw a chalk board by a farm pointing to a “Cyclist’s loo” sporting the LEL logo.

Cyclists' loo

I stopped and was ushered to an outhouse by a couple who then offered me tea or food. I demurred except for taking a couple of sweeties – then Nick passed … I hailed him and we all chatted for a while about the event, which had been publicised on local radio so prompting this useful pit stop.

Cyclists' loo

Nick powered ahead but we coincided again at Thirsk, where I tried without success to have a one hour nap. My mind wouldn’t switch off and after half-an-hour was telling me it wasn’t worth going to sleep now. I got up, unrested, and met with Nick and a number of ACME riders in the canteen. One word was on everybody’s lips: “A19”. This trunk road offered a way to bypass the Howardian Hills, saving all the climbing and 8 km of distance. The general idea seemed to be to turn onto it and follow the signs to Pocklington – you can’t go wrong. They said.

Thirsk – Pocklington (67 km)

And so I found myself riding south on the A19 in heavy rain. This is a major road, but by now the traffic was light enough that it could pass me respectfully (I was, I hope, nicely visible with a large dynamo tail light, a supplementary rear flasher, pedal reflectors, reflective detailing on my clothes and 3M reflective tape at various points on the bike). After a while the rain stopped and the moon shone brightly, making the going quite pleasant. I fired up the Bluetooth speaker and listened to some Beethoven symphonies, thinking cheerfully about the laney climbing I wasn’t doing in the Howardian Hills.

But a few symphonies later, doubt creeps in: I’m nearly in York – where was the turn off? I looked at my phone to find Nick had texted me a perfect routesheet to get to Pocklington using the A19, and that I had missed the correct turn and gone too far! I fired up Google maps and asked for a “car” route to Pocklington, got back on the bike and turned round. The irritation I felt seemed to unlock more energy in me and I found myself cycling quite fast. Again, I had to laugh: here I was zooming around the major multi-lane A-roads of York’s bypasses, unsure exactly where I was and burning time – but I was enjoying it.

Let's just draw a veil over this, ok?

Eventually, after a couple of mis-turns, Google got me back on course and onto the A1079 (familiar, again, from our Easter Arrow). I arrived in Pocklington to find Nick well into his meal – he’d come here, navigating optimally, with others in a pace line. And then I saw Nigel, who was breakfasting after a decent sleep. Once more, the Cambridge three were re-united.

Pocklington – Louth (97 km)

I knew this was going to be a tough leg and so it proved. By the time I got to the Humber Bridge (are the authorities actually trying to hide the way onto the cycleway?) I was beginning to feel very tired.

As the sun came up I felt an attack of the dozies coming on as my eyelids started to want to close. To try and shake it off I swigged from my caffeinated bidon, got out of the saddle for some spurts of speed, looked at the sun, and shouted to myself. It worked, and before long I was just tired but without that dangerous feeling that sleep is imminent.

I was using Nick’s route hack again to take the A18 and it was in truth a little late for this, as towards Louth the traffic started building: alarmingly fast and heavy. This was not good cycling, but I was at least making progress.

As I arrived at Louth at 07:40 I saw Ade, a cyclist with whom I had ridden much of the Bryan Chapman in 2016, about to leave. He looked fresh. “How are you feeling?” he asked. “I am galactically tired” I said. I wasn’t quite sure what this meant, but somehow it was accurate.

I went straight to ask for a bed. “Do you want to have a shower or brush your teeth?” I was asked. “No I need to lie down immediately” I said – such niceties could wait.

After a good two hours of clammy sleep, and a wash and brush up, I went to the canteen for a meal and found Nick. He was looking a little worse for wear and having trouble with his contact lenses. He showed me his legs: the muscles around his shins, used for “pulling up” when riding fixed, looked red and angry as it they wanted to burst through the skin. I felt vaguely guilty: following Velocio’s “ride within yourself” mantra had left me feeling well-preserved. I set off for the push across the Fens, sure that Nick would overhaul me soon …

Louth – Spalding (83 km)

As I made my way outside, a gust of wind blew a couple of bikes off their railings with a clatter. There was no doubt about it, this was going to be a windy day, and the Fens were going to collect their debt to us of an earlier tailwind – with interest.

In no mood for scenic routes now, I headed straight out of town on the A 153 for Horncastle. This road turned out to be surprisingly quiet, and is an efficient way over the Wolds with just a couple of sharp climbs. But the wind was severe, making progress extremely slow. By the time I ridden the 20 km to Horncastle I was only averaging 13.6 km/h.

Pro tip: When it's like this in the Fens, don't go cycling

Is it really going to take me 5 hours of headwind grind to reach Spalding from here? I wondered. (Answer: yes).

Part of the problem was my legs. Any pedalling at all induced a feeling like the build up of lactic acid during strong efforts. So I was constrained to a repeated sequence of pedalling until the discomfort became too much to bear, then coasting to a quick halt in the roaring headwind. This was not an efficient way to make progress. At one point a large peloton of Spanish riders came by. They had been a feature of this LEL, riding briskly as one, constantly talking loudly, and displaying plenty of posing prowess when stopped at junctions. I latched on for a while, but their pace was too hot for my legs to handle and I reluctantly fell off the back. I stopped, exhausted by the roadside and realised my legs were hot: I was still wearing the knee warmers I had put on somewhere in the Scottish Borders a couple of days ago. I removed them and rummaged in my tri bag to find the remains of a packet of salted almonds, which I devoured hungrily. Assessing the situation, I could see that my progress was slow, but I had time in hand and so as long as I kept going, I knew I could make it.

As I approached Spalding I began to feel stronger, and the “lactic” feeling in my legs drifted away. I hypothesize with hindsight that I needed salt, and that the almonds had done the trick, but I can’t be sure.

Nick arrived at Spalding shortly after me and we compared notes: we knew if we could reach St Ives we’d have beaten the headwind. It wasn’t going to be pleasant, but it was doable.

Spalding – St Ives (61 km)

On the road from Spalding my legs continued to feel better and I was now able to progress into the still-howling wind at a more workable 16/17 km/h – making time! Progress was helped further with bouts of teamwork with other riders, and by finding that a high-gear, low-cadence effort seemed to work well by “smoothing out” the buffeting of the wind and allowing a steady grind forwards.

It was getting dark as I reached Wyton, by which point I felt I had finished my arduous traversal of the Fens. I was surprised to hear a voice from the side of the road exhorting me to “keep the pace up”. It was John J! We rode together into town and I bounced the control, just popping in to say Hi to Eva.

St Ives – Great Easton (72 km)

John and I rode together along the busway towards Cambridge. It was uncannily like the end of a typical club ride, only I had 1,300 km in my legs. I realised comparing our riding styles that my pedalling was metronomic and weak: I was running on reserves. At Swavesy John J was replaced by John R and we continued along the busway to Histon, me burbling away with various LEL tales.

When I was left at Histon I continued on aiming for home in Cambridge: I was planning to have a sleep there. My mind was playing tricks again and I began to suspect I was on a new part of the busway which had been built while I was away.

Closing in on home I was nearly taken out by an unlit cyclist on Coldham’s Common – which would have been an ignominious end to the ride – before turning onto the final roads leading home. Again I began to suspect I had taken a wrong turning – somebody had replaced my usual roads with ones I had never seen before!

And when I got home I found my family had been replaced too. Formerly showing no interest whatsoever in my audax activities, this new family (thanks no doubt to the online tracking) was full of talk about about time-in-hand, moving averages and the finish time in Loughton. Slightly disconcerted, I grabbed a bite to eat, had my first, much-needed, shower of the ride and slipped into bed for a couple of hours.

When the alarm went, I woke from the deepest of sleeps, totally disoriented, but quickly remembered what needed to be done. I put on fresh kit and by 02:00 was on my way. This gave me around 8 hours for a nice leisurely run down the final 90 km to the arrivée via the Great Easton control.

Past Cambridge station on the busway I saw the light of a stationary bike ahead. What’s this? I thought – a mugger? But no, it was Seb! We rode down the busway to Great Shelford together where I bade him good night and rode on alone. At Saffron Walden I deviated from the official course to take the B 184 (Thaxted Road) for a more direct route. Everything was so quiet – I only saw two cars between Cambridge and Great Easton.

At Great Easton I caught up with Nigel who, like me, had stopped in Cambridge for a sleep. Nick, having found a new lease of life, had passed through some time earlier. The end was now in sight, with no time pressure. I ate some rice pudding, fruit salad and slices of swiss roll and – for the first time in days – fresh coffee. Ahhh.

Great Easton – Loughton (48 km)

The final run into Loughton saw a glorious golden dawn, showing off the Essex countryside at its very best. I worked over the undulating terrain steadily savouring the experience and replaying the events of the past days in my mind.

Before long it was time to cross the M25 and shortly thereafter to reach Loughton. Rounds of applause, pats on the back, photos and finishing medals.

Ready for the final stamp

Nigel and I caught up with Nick, snoozing in the sun. It had been quite a tough ride, but we’d done it.

Tired but content

I’d finished with around 90 minutes in hand. I’d been moving for 77.5 hours and stopped for 38, of which around 9 hours were sleeping. The total distance cycled was 1,432 km (890 miles) with 10,800 m (35,400 ft) of climbing. Strava stuff is here.

So that’s this year's long ride done. Next up for me: The Emerald Isle 2018!

30 Jul: Sunday ride to Newmarket and West Stow

John R writes: It was to be another windy and cloudy day, part and parcel of British school holidays!

Joining me at Brookside for today's ride were Greg, Paul D, Rupert, Sheila and Ray. We had lost a few of our regular riders – Alex, Nigel and John S – to the toils and ordeals of the 1400km LEL ride.


We were heading to the Racehorse Museum cafes at Newmarket so we set off via one of our usual routes along Hills Road onto Worts Causeway and on through Fulbourn, the Wilbrahams and down to Six Mile Bottom. Crossing the A11 we hit the undulations on the Brinkley Road before turning first left along Balsham Lane. We then put in a short loop by way of Dullingham and Woodditton before riding through the Crockfords Park housing estate and to our café stop at the Racehorse Museum. Here as usual we met several other club riders who had made their own way to coffee. The weather was warm enough to sit outside so we tucked into a variety of coffees, pain au raisins and sausage rolls.


Moving away just after 11.30am were myself, Greg, Ray, Sheila, Edmund, Keith, Andy and Sarah. We cycled past the Gallops leaving Newmarket and on toward Moulton. Then we found ourselves part following one of Nick Wilkinson's brilliant permanent audax routes through lovely Suffolk countryside via Gazeley, Barrow, Burthorpe, Risby and Flempton before finally arriving at West Stow Country Park at 1pm for lunch. As usual we found that Adrian had taken a quicker route and was already tucking into his food.

West Stow

West Stow

The weather forecast had not been looking too good for the afternoon and we knew that we would be cycling back into the wind so we set off back just after 1.30pm.

Hard work cycling into the wind as any rider knows so we just put our collective heads down and rode on through Cavenham, Tuddenham, Kennett before crossing the A11 into Chippenham. From here it was the usual route back from another of our favourite stops at La Hogue – so Snailwell, Exning, Reach, Swaffham Prior (can anyone tell me why there are two churches on the same site here), Swaffham Bulbeck and Bottisham. Then it's the pleasant ride on the cycleway alongside Newwmarket Road into Quy then a short hop through Fen Ditton, across the meadows and back into town alongside the river.

The route was just over 70 miles. John Ross

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30 Jul: Sunday afternoon ride to Ashwell

John writes: Simon (leader), David, Neil and I set off from Brookside at 1.30pm. Fine weather and a WSW breeze promised an easy ride home. Predictably Simon introduced a short stretch of off-road cycling from Grantchester to Roman Hill (near Barton). It was very enjoyable to be able to cycle out of traffic through fine countryside: the track was benign and negotiable on any type of tyre.


Between Barton and Shepreth many LEL riders sped towards us benefiting from a following wind.

More traffic-free cycling through Wimpole Park and then the quiet lanes through the villages to Steeple Morden, where Simon D from Cambourne joined us, brought us to the Parish Church Room just before 4pm. There we were greeted by Jacob who had cycled independently. No other cyclists were present although many other riders had called in earlier. Fortunately an ample supply of cakes remained.

Jacob presiding at tea

Tea in Ashwell

After an enjoyable tea we six returned together taking a direct route through Bassingbourn and over Chapel Hill. Strava recorded my home to home distance of 46 miles. John Ferguson

Pausing on Chapel Hill

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Thursday, 27 July 2017

27 Jul: Thursday ride to Reed and Stansted Mountfitchet

Edward writes: Today's ride was destined for the Silver Ball at Reed and to the Bean House in Stansted Mountfitchet, with Sheila leading from Hauxton and Glyn doing the honours at Brookside. The weather forecast was sort of OK with some showers predicted from late morning onwards, and accompanied by a westerly wind which, as we were heading southwards, wouldn’t be of much consequence on either the outward or the homeward journey.

I didn't get the numbers from the city but at Hauxton we had eleven, that is until we were about to set off, Greg turned up; some people just like to make grand entrances. Our ride started into Little Shelford and then over the hill to Newton. Unusually we missed out Thriplow and carried straight on to Fowlmere where we found Mike B waiting to join us. We negotiated the A505 and made our way to Chrishall Grange ready for the climb up the hill to the Elmdon turning where we had the usual pause so that everyone could come together again. This brought us to a lovely part of south Cambridgeshire with fine views all round, except that we had to pedal hard on the hills so probably not too much notice was taken of the surrounding countryside.


Shaftenhoe End was followed by a stiff climb before descending to reach the B1368 for the run into Barkway and finally up to Reed and the Silver Ball for coffee where we found the city group already installed.

Coffee at Reed

As is now the custom quite a few turned back after coffee but this still left two sizeable groups to head for Stansted. Just as we were about to leave we had the first squally shower of the day causing the waterproofs to go on, but luckily it didn't last long.

Leaving Reed

We had to retrace our steps back to Barkway where there appeared to be a dispute between Garmins and brains, with the former apparently directing us back the way had just come. Maybe the Garmins were confused because of the diversion signs in Barkway, but luckily brains won the day and we continued south through the village before taking the Anstey turning.

Now we were in the Hertfordshire countryside with much quieter, more rural roads. We went past the golf course before another minor encounter with the gamins but Adrian knew the turning to take and who would you put your money on if it was a choice between a Garmin and Adrian? Most people would reckon that would be 'no contest'.

The ride got better as the roads through Brent and Stocking Pelham were really pleasant but the best bit was going down to Manuden, as this was a very pleasant ride on narrow roads with hedgerows either side. Now in Essex our ride to lunch was only two more miles and we arrived at the Bean House at 1 pm only a few minutes after Glyn’s group.

Near Stocking Pelham

Near Stocking Pelham

The Bean House is a fairly recent discovery. They are always most welcoming and they are always pleased to see us and everything else matched up with good quality food at a fair price and all served in order for us to leave by 2pm. The Bean House should always feature on our runs list.

Glyn led his group away first with Sheila following a few minutes later with a large contingent of thirteen. We left Stansted on the road out to the B1383 which immediately took us to Alsa Street and on to Ugley Green before arriving at Elsenham level crossing where we had a long wait for two trains and then wait for the manually operated gates to be opened.


Elsenham Station

We carried on beside the motorway and railway before rejoining the B1383 to run down to Newport after which we turned off to go through Wendens Ambo.

Wendens Ambo

Wendens Ambo

This inevitably took us face to face with the long climb up to Telegraph Hill. As we climbed we could see heavy storm clouds developing in the direction of Coploe Hill and it was a question of whether or not we would get though unscathed.

Telegraph Hill

Threatening Clouds over Coploe Hill

In the event we just about made it; we did get some rain but the worst of it missed us. We finished the ride through Ickleton, Duxford and Whittlesford. It was 4pm and we had covered 57 miles so thanks to Glyn and to Sheila for their routes which took us through some lovely Herts and Essex countryside.
Edward Elmer

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26 Jul: Evening ride to Hemingford Abbots

Nigel writes: Today was another gloomy and damp day but, as on Sunday, this didn't put our regular riders off, with a fine turnout of eight riders at Brookside and a ninth joining us along the way. We set off east along the river, crossed the Green Dragon Bridge and continued to Cambridge North Station where we joined the busway for our ride to St Ives.

We hadn't gone far before it started to rain, and most of us stopped to put on wet weather gear, though I decided not to in the hope that it wouldn't last for long. I was half-right: the rain did dtop eventually, but after rather more rain than I would have preferred. Fortunately it was quite warm and by the time we reached St Ives I was dry again.

On the busway

For three riders (Alex, Nick and me) this was our last ride before LEL, and a final opportunity to compare plans - and for Alex and me to receive a few final tips from Nick.

On the busway

When we reached St Ives Nick turned back for home, leaving the rest of us to continue along the Thicket Path to Houghton and across the Ouse meadows to Hemingford Abbots. There we found Paul who had made his own way there.

The bar area was busier than usual so we asked the staff whether we could sit in the restaurant, and they cheerfully assembled a table of nine for us before taking our food orders. A little later John S arrived, who had made his own way there by motorised means.

Dining at The Axe and Compass

Afterwards we returned back to Cambridge via Hemingford Grey, St Ives and the busway once more, and I arrived home at 10.30pm, having cycled 61km (38 miles).
Nigel Deakin

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Tuesday, 25 July 2017

25 Jul: A ride around Maidwell, Northamptonshire (car-assisted)

Rupert writes: I arrived at the Maidwell parking space a mere five minutes late to find four people waiting, making strange gestures and pointing at their watches. But I was travelling with Adrian - who was our leader today - and so I was able to remain guilt-free having arrived at exactly the same time as the leader. We were now eight in total: Adrian, Rupert, Clive, Mike C, John S, Tom, Jill and George S.

We unloaded the bikes and set off north along the NCN 6 cycle path which follows an old railway line from Northampton to Market Harborough. The route is unsurfaced, but generally good riding, with the exception of the two short tunnels. Both tunnels are quite straight which means there is a clear light at the end of both tunnels (insert obvious comparison with Brexit here) making them seem a bit shorter than they are. But the tunnel floor is rather potholed and wet so that good lights are needed to ride through safely.

Emerging from the first tunnel (Photo: Adrian Lee)

Same photo with Adrian (Photo: John Seton)

Once through the second tunnel it was time to divert for our morning coffee at a nice cafe just off the trail. Cake or bacon butties were ordered according to preference, with the exception of a certain unnamed party who decided to order a combined sausage and bacon sandwich. I wonder if he realized what lay ahead.

Setting out along NCN6 (Photo: Adrian Lee)

After coffee we carried on north into Market Harborough where the route leaves the railway line and follows pedestrian paths past supermarkets and shops. We had to weave slowly though teeming hordes of pedestrians who seemed mildly surprised at our presence. Then a gently climb out of town and up a residential street to join the canal towpath.

Riding along the towpath (Photo: Tom Ambrose)

The canal is a short stub off the Grand Union Canal that terminates at Market Harborough. It felt a bit strange to ride a long way uphill and then emerge beside a canal - this canal is at a surprisingly high elevation relative to the town. The canal follows the contour of the higher land giving a series of delightful curves - it almost loops back on itself at the end. The towpath is excellent riding, apart from the regular over-bridges which are quite low and only have a narrow ledge under the bridge to carry the path. So some caution was needed to cycle under the bridges. I was following one of the taller riders who was having to duck and squeeze under all the bridges, probably not helped by that fateful decision to have BOTH sausage and bacon in his morning sandwich.

Foxton Locks (Photo: John Seton)

Lunch at Foxton (Photo: John Seton)

All too soon we arrived at Foxton locks which were full of tourists watching a steady procession of narrow boats making their way up and down the staircase of locks. We stopped here for lunch while Rupert went to investigate the ruins of the inclined plane. The inclined plane is a wonderful Victorian relic - a canal boat lift that enabled the boats to bypass the locks and be lifted up or down in a fraction of the time it would take to traverse the locks. It also used much less water than the locks (almost none according to Wikipedia). Sadly, it had a short working life of just over 10 years and only the foundations remain.

Top section of Inclined Plane at Foxton Locks - - 507458
The top section of the Inclined Plane at Foxton Locks (Photo: Keith Rose [CC BY-SA 2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

I was fascinated by the inclined plane boat lift - Victorian engineering at its best - and would like to share a few of the interesting facts with you. There were two parallel lifts to keep it balanced just like a funicular railway. But unlike a funicular railway, it is always perfectly balanced thanks to Archimedes principle. For me, the clever bit is the way they get the boats out of the lifts at the top. There are two subtle details - it's even cleverer than I thought at the time. The ramps are horizontally offset to separate the loading docks and the slope of the ramps is reduced at the top to compensate for the change as the lower lift enters the water (a buoyancy adjustment feature). Absolutely wonderful. I recommend a bit of googling if you are interested: you could start here.

Between Foxton and Naseby (Photo: John Seton)

Consulting on the route (Photo: John Seton)

After lunch we headed south on small roads until our next stop at the memorial site of the battle of Naseby. Over ten thousand troops on each side fought one of the decisive battles of the civil war here. Despite the best efforts of Prince Rupert (no relation) the Royalists were defeated.

Naseby - Cyclists in battle formation (Photo: John Seton)

We continued south via Naseby Village, continuing to enjoy the delights of quiet roads and increasingly warm sunshine. We were passing a lot of unharvested wheat fields here - and not much sign of any combines at work. It seems the weather has been too unsettled for the harvest to get going here.

We eventually arrived at Church Brampton where Adrian's off-road instincts kicked in again. He lead us off down a pleasant lane past a golf course. This gentle introduction was followed by a short section of narrow and muddy bridleway which was rather overgrown with a lot of nettles. Rupert pushed ahead, braving the nettles and leading the way, but true to form he then took a wrong turn and disappeared, so the poor leader had to chase him down and get him back on track. Eventually we emerged from the nettles onto a better and wider track.

Adrian was clearly not satisfied with such a short section of "rough-stuff" and suddenly turned off the sandy track to lead us down a rough field edge path on beside a cornfield in search of a secret river crossing. The sight of cyclists pushing their bikes through the cornfield caused a big surprise to a local dog-walker. And with good reason: we were heading for the wrong bridge! So we retreated all the way back to rejoin the main track, and carried on a bit further to discover that the next river bridge crossing had a fully signed and surfaced cycle track that was a lot easier to follow than the edge of a cornfield.

Heading back along NCN6 (Photo: Adrian Lee)

At this point our route rejoined the southern end of NCN6 just outside Northampton - the start of the old railway line. The old tracks and a few bits of old rolling stock are still in place on this first section, but tragically the hoped for tea shop at the old station was closed. So we settled down for a tea-starved last few miles of delightful riding to find the cars where just we had left them.

Apart from the minor disaster of failing to find a tea shop for our afternoon tea, a wonderful day was had by all. Those who completed the full circuit, including the unscripted cornfield excursion, would have covered 48 miles. Our thanks to Adrian for both organizing and leading the ride. Rupert Goodings

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As it was: Map of Northampton to Market Harborough Railway (Photo: Tom Ambrose)

Sunday, 23 July 2017

23 Jul: Sunday afternoon ride to St Ives

John writes: Surely I’m not leading another Sunday afternoon in the rain? (See my reports of 27 July 2015 and 23 August 2015).

Simon was the back-marker for today's ride but this was hardly necessary, there being only two of us. At Bourn the rain had almost ceased so we resisted the temptation of curtailing the ride by going to Green's in Cambourne for a very early tea or after-lunch coffee. This might have been a mistake for at Knapwell the rain resumed in torrents.

At the A1096 crossing we agreed to abandon the planned tea stop in Houghton and instead go to the Riverside Café at St Ives where we enjoyed cream teas. This café is now refurbished with waitress-service. During the tea stop the rain ceased and the sun came out so we enjoyed a vigorous ride back to Cambridge beside the busway. Strava had recorded my home-to-home distance as 36 miles. John Ferguson

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23 Jul: Sunday ride to St Neots, Oundle and Houghton

Nigel writes: Today's ride was one of our occasional "longer" Sunday rides, with a slightly earlier start than usual and a slightly longer distance planned. However the weather forecast was distinctly unpromising, with rain showers predicted for later in the day. I therefore set off for the 8.30am start expecting to find few other riders apart from Alex, our leader for today, and me.

I was completely mistaken, and instead of finding just a handful of riders I found one of our largest turnouts on any Sunday ride this year, with a total of fifteen riders present including me. Clearly members of CTC Cambridge are not put off by an earlier start, by a longer distance, or by the prospect of a shower or two. Bravo!


For the first stage of today's ride we rode west to our coffee stop in St Neots. With so many riders Alex invited me to take the lead at the front whilst he followed on near the back, and for part of the way we rode as two separate groups.

Barton Road, Cambridge

Alex had chosen a fairly direct route, following the B1046 all the way apart from a diversion via Caxton half-way along. Along the way we passed through Abbotsley, and we spotted quite a few amusing participants in its scarecrow festival as we rode along.


We reached the Ambiance Cafe in St Neots a few minutes after 10am. This is a modest, unpretentious cafe, but once again it demonstrated a high degree of professionalism, catering for a sudden influx of cyclists quickly and efficiently and supplying table umbrellas without prompting when it began to rain.

After coffee several riders returned back to Cambridge, leaving a still-sizable group of ten to continue on to lunch. This had originally been planned to be at the National Trust tea rooms in Lyveden near Oundle, but this would have involved a mile or two of off-road cycling, and in the light of recent rain Alex decided to avoid this and divert to Oundle instead.

Pertenhall, just before Kimbolton

The rain soon stopped and for a while the sun came out, but the most memorable aspect of this next stage of the ride was the rain, which restarted as we passed through Pertenhall and by the time we reached Kimbolton had became a downpour. However we kept going, pausing only to put on raingear, and after about twenty minutes the rain stopped again.

Eight minutes after the previous photo, sheltering from the rain

We reached Oundle at 1pm exactly and stopped for lunch at Beans Cafe.

Lunch in Oundle

Although it had been dry and warm as we sat outside Beans Cafe eating our lunch, it started to rain as we prepared to set off. Within a few minutes the rain had become a downpour. Despite this, Alex said "let's go" and set off along the street, whilst most of the others stayed motionless, sheltering from the rain in a gateway near the cafe. After a few moments I decided to follow, leaving my fellow-riders to stay behind in their mutineer refuge.

I caught up with Alex and we tacitly agreed that it was probably a good idea to stop and wait, and we too took shelter in a doorway about 100m along the street. A few minutes later the rain slackened slightly, the others appeared, and we all set off together. The rebellion had ended without a single word being exchanged.

The next stage of our ride took us south-west, across the busy A605 and then right at the following junction - the famous "turning for Thurning" (we make the same joke every single time we visit this tiny village). We continued in a straight line through Thurning, Winwick and Hamerton as far as Alconbury Weston where we turned north for the short climb up Vinegar Hill toward Monk's Wood. The rain hadn't lasted long and by now it was warm, dry and sunny.

A little further along we joined the B1090 - rather busier than usual because of the "Secret Garden Party" in Abbots Ripton - and followed it towards St Ives. Just before we reached St Ives we turned right and dropped down a little hill to Houghton, where we stopped for tea at the National Trust cafe beside the mill.

We were due to meet the afternoon ride there, but they never appeared, though we did meet Ian W who had made his own way there.

After a pleasant half hour eating cream teas in the sunshine we set off for home, taking the Thicket Path to St Ives and the busway from there back to Cambridge.

Heading home along the Thicket Path to St Ives

On the busway

I arrived home at 6pm exactly, after having cycled 150km (93 miles) on our longest ride so far this year. Nigel Deakin

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