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

Cycling Plus - - CONTENTS - Words & images Da­mon Pea­cock

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.

ROUTE MASTERS

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.

JOY RID­ERS

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

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