BRITAIN’S TOUGHEST RIDE
At 1400km from the capital of England to the capital of Scotland and back, in just five days, London-Edinburgh-London is surely Britain’s toughest ride. We went inside the event to discover what it takes to bring it to life every four years
What it takes to organise and participate in the UK’s toughest ride - London to Edinburgh and back again!
Before London-Edinburgh-London 2017, the nearest I’d got to Thailand was seeing my mother play Anna in an amateur production of the The King And I. During LEL, I saw over 60 Thai cyclists pit themselves against the British terrain and weather.
I was filming the event, largely out of habit, and I was constantly asked if I was a ‘professional’. That question brought my mum’s acting and directing career to mind. I should have been mortified by the embarrassment of seeing her on stage, but she was actually very good, and went on to stage benefit shows that would pull in an audience of 10,000 in a week. Many of the audience were relatives of the cast, or supporters of the charity, so there’s a bit of collusion about the standard of the performance, but the results were genuinely enjoyable.
I’ve been involved with London-Edinburgh-London since 2001,
when I first rode it. My partner Heather organised a control stop at the Langdon Beck Youth Hostel, the highest in Britain. Controls on an audax [long-distance ride to be completed within a pre-defined time limit] exist to confirm that the riders are doing the distance, and to provide services through the night: feeding, sleeping and mechanical help.
The first few LELs from 1989 used main roads, mainly the A68. But that’s become unpleasant and unsafe in modern traffic conditions, as rider numbers have grown from 26 to over 1400. The route now consists of 1441km of the remotest routes between Loughton, on the edge of London, and Bonnyrigg on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The result is that the controls are almost the exclusive source of food and accommodation for the riders. They’re mainly in small town schools, with dinner staff providing the food, and with airbeds and blankets in the sports hall for tired riders. At Pocklington, that hall was a converted locomotive maintenance shed with 450 mattresses.
The LEL control managers take possession of the premises the day before the riders arrive, and adapt them as well as they can. Some controllers have experience to fall back on, but there can be no rehearsal. The event is vastly bigger in scale than any other Audax United Kingdom event, so it’s not just a case of scaling up the usual arrangements.
Event organiser Danial Webb explains: “We had around 1500 riders ready to go at the start, but I think what a lot of people don’t realise is that they are backed by around 600
volunteers – so that’s almost one volunteer for every two riders – and these people give their time free of charge. We’re talking about people who have taken a week off work to work around the clock on this because they are so caught up in the spirit of the event. It’s that welcome the riders get at the control points that allows and enables them to do really amazing things.
“We get a lot of riders who finish and say that next time they will come back and volunteer because they’ve seen another side to the event that can be as exciting, and as exhausting sometimes, as riding.”
Each LEL has sought to project the experience of past rides on to the present. There’s been a lot of computer modelling of rider flows along the course, and that informs the phasing of the starts. However, the weather and rider behaviour tend to produce big gaps between prediction and reality.
Paris-Brest-Paris is the other main endurance ride of this type. That requires qualification via 200, 300, 400 and 600km rides, which provides more consistency from the field. LEL aims to embrace the current crop of riders from the sportive and charity ends of the distance-riding spectrum, and with no qualification required that consistency is lost.
Heather and I have seen five LELs and these are volunteer events at heart. That implies give and take between organisers and participants. There often isn’t a fence between the two, they’re the same people.
That may seem like a long preamble to a report on the event, but it explains why you can’t take what riders say about it at face value. Loyalty to hundreds of keen volunteers means you’re not going to see a Trip Advisor-style review of LEL, amusing though that would be.
The route is out and back, and diverges North of Brampton, in Cumbria, for a clockwise tour of southern Scotland, taking in controls at Moffat, Edinburgh, Innerleithen and Eskdalemuir. Eskdalemuir’s principal industries are forestry and Buddhism, with the Samye Ling temple playing a prominent role. It’s quiet enough to be home to a seismic recording station, which monitors underground nuclear bomb tests as far away as North Korea.
No town on LEL outside the M25 or Edinburgh Ring Road has more than
“What a lot of people don’t realise is that riders are backed by around 600 volunteers – so that’s almost one volunteer for every two riders”
15,000 inhabitants, most are below 5000, many below 1000. Eskdalemuir has just 256 people. Most riders like to get back to Brampton as soon as possible, to access their bags. There are two bag drops per rider, and Brampton is popular. The result is that Brampton can get overwhelmed. It would be better to have a bigger control, but there isn’t a lot of choice. The field behaves like traffic on the M25. There are sudden waves, the French call it ‘circulation accordion’, and it’s difficult to predict where the squeeze will come. Riders get bunched due to the terrain and the weather, both of which are wildly variable.
Audaxers call this ‘The Bulge’, and there comes a point where demand at controls exceeds supply, and any novice economist knows that the solution is a higher price. LEL costs more on each running – economies of scale work in reverse, as there are more formal hurdles to leap. In 2001, 2005 and 2009 I saved newspaper vouchers to get a discount at Lidl for tinned ravioli, rice pudding and biscuits for Heather’s control. This time the facilities company for the High School at Brampton handled the catering, with overtime rates during the continuous 63-hour opening period. A controller is now a manager coordinating a multinational mix of volunteers, school staff, and casual workers. Most of the time, the controls seem over-manned, but no-one knows when ‘The Bulge’ might appear.
The ride is well worth doing, passing through some of the most unlikely looking parts of the UK, giving the impression that it’s about as populated as New Zealand. The presence of an Alpine climb in the North Pennines caused some surprise, and it certainly took me back to when I first went to Yad Moss in 2001.
That year was fairly benign, with just headwinds to deal with, and 2005 was much the same, but 2009 was extremely grim for most. You were guaranteed to get rained on at some point, luck dictated where. You were guaranteed headwinds, and that’s probably what led to 34 per cent of
“The ride is worth doing, passing through some of the most unlikely looking parts of the UK, giving the impression that it’s about as populated as New Zealand”
starters dropping out, or finishing outside the time limit. There was rain and headwind this year, too, which helps explain why just 810 of 1448 riders finished within their time.
“The weather has been typical for this ride,” admits Webb of the 2017 edition. “People gripe about the wind and the rain, and when they do I say you can’t say I didn’t warn you! I write so many emails telling people to be prepared.”
There are other obstacles too. “Somebody got hit by a badger, which seems to be an honourable tradition in this event,” confides Webb. “We use quiet country lanes and while that keeps us away from traffic it does expose us to nocturnal animals. It carries some risk, but that’s what makes it an adventure.”
My overall view is that LEL and PBP can only be judged as communal celebrations of long distance cycling, and both succeed on those terms. If that appeals, then it’s for you at the advertised price. If you can’t get your head around some of the idealism, then they’re both still well worth doing. Just sit down, read between the lines, and work out how much you want to spend on a good night’s sleep between crisp white sheets, rather than removal men’s blankets and an airbed.
After the effort of pulling the whole event together, the last word should be Danial’s. “What I like about this event, and audax in general, is that the competition comes from within. We don’t really pit ourselves against each other, we pit ourselves against ourselves, and that brings a spirit of cooperation as we work together to get as many people as possible over the line.
“I think that’s what attracts people who want to push themselves without the aggression that can be associated with sport. That’s not to say it isn’t tough, it is, but I don’t think half the people here would make it without the support of the volunteers, organisers and fellow riders on the road: this is a community that looks after each other.”
Volunteers are on hand to help with mechanicals
Sometimes you just need to get off the bike and take a nap
To avoid sending riders along busy roads, parts of the route can be a little remote
School dining rooms provide space to take a much-needed rest
Right Whatever way you ride, you’re welcome at LEL
Left You need to be well prepared for riding through the night
No time for five-a-side, just 40 winks
Participants may ride alongside others, but it’s a personal journey, not a competitive event