A tale of mind games and time games
I was quite blasé about LEL before I started. I hadn’t got the miles in I’d expected to and I wasn’t as fit as I had been for previous 1000 km+ rides, but I thought I’d got in enough miles, and I thought I was fit enough.
I didn’t expect it to be easy, but the route is mostly on familiar roads, in a familiar country. I’ve ridden long brevets in France and Belgium before, and in the UK there are no language or culture difficulties, whereas in, say, France, there’s always a nagging doubt that some obscure rule is going to be arbitrarily imposed upon no one else but YOU. With organised stops for food and sleep every 60-100 kms, plenty of local knowledge of how to get food/shelter off piste, and the fact that I could have gone home and added no more than 12 km to the route, I was fairly confident I could get around by treating it as a tour. It was more-or-less a matter of riding my bike a long way.
It’s not just a distance game, though – the clock is always ticking, and it’s a game of time. There are a few tricks to prevent yourself being overwhelmed by the huge distances, such as riding only to the next control. But you still have to think about where you are each night, to split the ride into five sensible days without pushing too far into sleep deprivation. I wanted to finish, and to finish comfortably, and remember the ride. I drew upon my experience – knowing how much farther I could push it, when to sleep, how to look after myself, and how to think no farther than the next control, but still keep an overall sense of the ride.
Day 1/Sunday – Loughton to York (359 km) – The Party Peloton #dogsoflel
We had a few pints on Saturday night at the local pub in Loughton. The Gunmaker’s Arms was recommended to us by Tracy. West Haaaam Tracy. We had a few pints and picked up Pavel from Belarus, who was in the 100-hour group, and was later seen packing at Edinburgh, being put away in a quiet corner for a well-earned rest by Pichy, then helping out again at the finish while he was waiting for his flight.
Now, most audaxes in the UK tend to attract more-or-less the same crowd. Middle-aged white blokes. People like me, really. I really enjoyed wandering around the start and seeing bikes, faces and languages from all over the world. There was a good vibe.
Still feeling confident, I set off at 11.45 with a gang of other VC167 riders. We’d planned to sit on the wheels of Team Bursital from Estonia – they had ES on their name badges, which is Estonia, right? Viva Estonia!
Team Bursital shot off like scalded cats while Rob pulled into the first bus stop to tighten a loose skewer. We let John Sabine lead us through the Essex badlands, I gently ribbed him for riding gears, and then we were pretty much on the front until St Ives, with Magic Mick Fisher in particular pulling epic turns. We were group V – a very fast W caught us up, and I ended up leapfrogging him almost the entire ride, as he was much faster on the road, but ended up stopping even more than I did. And I stopped a lot. If anyone’s reading this for tips on how to manage your time well on long brevets, you’re in the wrong place.
I had to drop off the back of the group when we hit The Hill. Fucking hell, where had that come from? I nearly had a cry – this was still Cambridgeshire, and there were actual proper hills to come farther north. I decided I hadn’t eaten enough, and tucked into a Tunnocks, which is always a Good Idea. That got me to St Ives.
It struck me more going south, but St Ives was a very well-managed control. I felt almost at home here, as a lot of the volunteers had also volunteered at Barnard Castle on the event four years ago, and Phil Dyson was again in charge. I had chance to chat with Garry Broad the mechanic, waved at Phil on the way out, and I enjoyed Colin’s food. The dhal was wonderful, whatever anyone says! I surprised one of the kitchen volunteers by asking for dhal with pasta – I’ll bet they were asked for stranger combinations before the event was through.
With a tailwind, it was a quick run over the Fens to Spalding where Jim Crew came over for a chat – another friend of the road I hadn’t seen since PBP. At the start, I was chatting to Ivo Miesen, and he said “You always see the same faces at these events”. Seems I’m now one of those faces…
The wheels nearly came off the bus at Louth. I’m still not sure why, but there were seven of us riding together, we arrived around 20 to 9 in good shape, just as it was getting busy, but there was time to grab food, go to the loo and go.
So I’m not sure why it was after eleven before we before we left, but it did give me time to take some photos and admire the performance of the Ladies of Louth.
Ah, the Ladies of Louth. I saw the exact same scene played out twice: tired-looking bloke shuffles up to the bed-booking queue and asks for a bed. One of the Ladies fixes him with a stern eye and asks “Have you eaten yet?” and the small reply comes back “no”. Then they are sternly instructed to go and eat first, as they need to eat, and there are plenty of beds. Good advice – I certainly wasn’t going to argue.
Graeme Holdsworth turned up, bouncy as ever. Ian Newall, the latest VC167 starter, turned up and asked what we were all still doing there. Good question.
Once we were rolling, though, we started to keep up a good speed, away from the official route and following a main road route which took us to the Humber Bridge and which we’d used on a few Easter Arrows. We’d stuck with Gordon and Debs as they didn’t know this route, but we had to put Gordon down for a wee nap at a handy pub bench. This gave us chance for an impromptu whisky-tasting session, as we had three single malts and another whisky in the gang. Not for nothing were we called the Party Peloton.
Graeme caught up with us again in the Humber Bridge Country Park, and nipped off home through the lanes while we partied along the A63 dual carriageway. Night riding is constantly amazing, and whipping along a deserted dual carriageway lined with streetlamps where the surface is like a magic carpet is a transgressive delight. We are twenty-four-hour garage people, after all. It was the last night of the Party Peloton, as we went our separate ways after Pocklington.
Pocklington control was a blur at 4 am. I was probably fairly incoherent when I spoke to Darryl Rayner on the check-in desk, but I grabbed my bag drop, changed clothes and thought of the route ahead.
After Pocklington, the route winds across the Howardian Hills. It’s a thought-provoking and beautiful place, where you can only wonder at the arrogance of the Howards who stamped their ownership upon the landscape. Every ridge is topped with an arch or a wall, an obelisk or a folly, and in the early morning the rising sun cuts sharp shadows across the landscape.
But I didn’t go there – Mark had offered me a place at his house in York, and I’d have been a fool to turn down the offer of a night in a proper bed. Or early morning, anyway, as it was 5.45 when we arrived after an eerily quiet dash along the main Hull-York road and through the old city. Rufus guarded our bikes while we slept. #dogsoflel
Day 2/Monday – York to Moffat (257 km) – Only Tees-ing
Back on the road at 10.30, we gritted our teeth and hacked up the A19 to Thirsk. Utter shite, but it did the job, and my sister and her partner were helping at Thirsk, so hugs all round.
I was on home turf here. I live in Darlington, and these are my roads. I relaxed, we stopped at a shop to stave off the dozies, took some photos, and we had a quick round of the jacket-on-jacket-off-game. I hate that game.
As we rolled into Barnard Castle control, Mark and I caught up with another rider who was wondering where the control was. I pointed out the dome of the school building, and started retelling a story often told by another friend of the road who was at Barnard Castle School in the sixties. Guess who was waiting tables at the control? He said he’d volunteered and told them he could go to any control at all, and of all the places, they chucked him there. He pointed out his name on one of the plaques on the wall – I wasn’t clear what it was for, but he was clear that it was nothing as grandiose as cricket or rugby captain. Ne’er-do-wells of 1961, I’d imagine. Also, Kat was at Barnie! So more hugs.
While leaving Barnie, a couple of the front runners were coming south – they’d ridden 950 km in the time it took me to ride 550. Actually, reading this, I’d had a decent night’s sleep and they hadn’t, so go me!
I’d imagine a lot of riders were worried about Yad Moss. It looms large in the mind, and on the elevation profile.
I know it very well – how the road heads up from Middleton, above the Tees and under Kirkcarrion, with Holwick Scar across the river, how it cuts into the valley slope above Low Force and continues past High Force and the quarry before rising into the wild moorlands. Cronkley Scar looms at the left, with the Tees curving around the base from its source at Cross Fell, and the skies open out into forever.
As far as road cycling goes, this is the roof of England. There aren’t any English roads higher than these, and between the last Homely House of Langdon Beck and a few hamlets in Tynedale, the only shelter to be had is a solitary phone box.
I rolled up and down the road to take a few photos, and it was generally a benign crossing in the early evening. No one needs to tell me how bad conditions can be up there – I’ve ridden it in almost every weather you can get. On one notable occasion, a mate came off it with frostbite, but only on the right side of his face, as the biting gales had come howling across Mickle Fell and blindsided us. It had been clear all the way up from Alston.
For once, I didn’t recount this tale to my riding companions. We had a quick stop at the forecourt in Alston to tick off another box on our Audax Bingo cards. We were still missing a kip in a bus shelter, a visit to a 24-hour McDonald’s and kip at Lockerbie truck stop, but there was time yet. I think this was where we had the conversation about our Alternative Audax Names – inspired by a Scot who goes by the name of John Stonebridge (after Johnstonebridge Services). I thought I could be Bart Onserviçés, but I decided I quite liked Al Stone (lost soul singer, used to hang out with Lou Rawls and Joe Tex), and Graeme could be Stan Hope (northern comedian from the fifties). No one wanted to be Lee Mingbar.
At Barnie, Graeme must have been watching the tracker as he was waiting for us, and we ended up riding over to Brampton together. We also picked up an old mate of his, Andrew Preston, and we had a canny little group up to Brampton and onto Moffat. I had been entertaining thoughts of pushing onto Edinburgh, but at 1 am on wet roads, it was an easy decision to stop, sleep through the small hours and re-set into a rhythm of riding from dawn till dusk.
Tuesday/Day 3 – Moffat to Alston (260 km) – Spinning Class – Bonus Sleep!
I had been concerned about the bed booking system the night before. The volunteer booking us in was clearly worn out. So my name was rubbed off overnight and I wasn’t woken up – my phone battery had ran out, and as there was no ambient light in the hall I couldn’t judge when it was getting light.
I was a little bleary-eyed explaining it to the lovely volunteer, but I was sanguine about it – a bonus hour’s sleep is an extra hour in bed, after all. One guy was over-the-top grumpy about the same thing having happened, and I nearly went to tell him to wind his neck in a bit, but I tried to be extra-nice to the lovely volunteer instead, who was quite upset despite it not having been her fault. I’m not at my best in the mornings (and it’s all downhill from there), so I probably failed. Should have given her a hug – volunteers deserve hugs too!
The other lads were leaving while I was getting breakfast, and I was on my own up the Beeftub. I briefly chatted with Andy Clarkson, and met Mark on the descent. I decided it was a little chilly and put my jacket on – while I was faffing, the now-famous Hummers came steaming past in shorts and short sleeves. Class act, as ever.
The rest of the Party Peloton caught us up just after we’d stopped for second breakfast at Broughton Village Shop. They’d picked up Mike Metcalfe somewhere along the way, and we rode into Edinburgh more-or-less together. By the way, Village Name of the Event Award goes to Lamancha, and its commitment to the Don Quixote theme is to be commended.
I was on the front on one of the descents through the Edinburgh hinterland, and as I was riding 73″ fixed, I was having to keep my legs spinning fairly briskly at about 50 kph. This befuddled a bunch of Italians who’d tagged on the back, and when one of them overtook, he looked me full in the face, looked down at my chain, looked back at me, and simply shook his head.
After a bit of converted railway which is by far the best route I’ve ever ridden into Auld Reekie from the south, we were at Dalkeith for about 10 am – well within 48 hours, and leaving plenty of time for the return. Mark and I had bag drops at Edinburgh, so we were for changing our kit and having a shower. Back on the road with 68-and-some hours to get back to London.
Like nearly all the northern controls, Edinburgh was lovely as it was full of people I knew. Sadly, Pichy had packed, but he was resplendent in his T-Shirt of Red, guiding people in and chasing off the local neds who were trying to get into the school. It was a shame there weren’t enough T-Shirts of Red to go round, but there was no missing Dave Crampton, who was helpfulness itself. He wouldn’t let me leave until he’d filled my water bottles, and I later saw he’d spent time guiding tired riders to accommodation, trains, and generally being a good bloke.
I dropped Mark on the climb up the Granites, which I just wanted to get over with. The wind was right in our faces now. I had a lot of fun on the descent, though – all the riders on gears pedalled, freewheeled, pedalled, freewheeled. I didn’t have a choice about pedalling downhill, and just got on with it. I beat the showers into Innerleithen and had chance to chat to Dan and June James, the chief controllers, while waiting for Mark. There was a friendly vibe about Innerleithen control which meant I didn’t mind waiting. Not to mention, Dan’s lad spotted my Dennis the Menace jersey, and came over to tell me my jersey was awesome.
Again, to keep my gear turning and spare my knees, I had to push on up the climb out of Innerleithen. It gave me time to check out the Tibetan retreat at Samye Ling, but not too much time, as a massive raincloud was looming over the valley.
Eskdalemuir was my absolute favourite control (with apologies to all the other excellent controls). Mike Wigley and Peter Bond were waving us into the control, but most of the volunteers were from the local community. All the food was vegetarian and excellent, and the shiny new community hub was really bustling. As we were managing to stay ahead of the bulge, Peter had time for a chat, and time to play us a song. We gave him a round of applause, and I was immensely touched. I didn’t want to leave Eskdalemuir – only the midges chased me away. Well, the midges and Damon with his camera.
Graeme, Mark and I regrouped at Eskdalemuir for the gentle downhill ride to Brampton. We were amused by a group who strictly followed the route, and vanished off the A7 onto the cyclepath, only to reappear at a junction a few minutes later. Less amused by the close overtake from a logging wagon.
Ian Gilbert was again mechanicking at Brampton, and we had another quick chat, as we had done on the way north. Dear reader, I confess I lost my self-sufficiency badge, as I asked Ian to fix my vaper. I’d dropped it on the run into Dalkeith, and needed two pairs of pliers to separate the threads, but as I was travelling light, I only had one pair of pliers. I’d given up the fags earlier in the year, and whenever people commented on it, my response was “I’ve gone electric”. Peter would’ve got it (he was at the infamous Dylan Free Trade Hall gig but claims he wasn’t the one who shouted Judas).
Brampton was also the abode of Mike McGeever and the literal bag drop. It was like performance art, Mike in his broadest Geordie shouting numbers at confused riders. It all seemed to work out, and Mike looked as though he was enjoying himself. “The Darlington Dervishes”, he shouted after us as we rode off up the hill.
Graeme kept saying that he wanted to go on to Barnie. My plan was always Alston – in fact, in random conversations with other riders, when I told them I was aiming for Alston, the near-universal response was along the lines of “Oh, I didn’t know you could stop there”. I should have stopped telling people about it, in case it filled up.
Up the hill from Brampton in the near-dark, Graeme was bouncing, but I just said “you can carry on if you feel good, but I’m stopping at Alston”. Mark kept his own counsel. In the end, we all stopped at Alston, which was the correct decision. You only needed to look around to see who else was there – Mike Lane, the Youngs, Ian Ryall – and me, of course, as I’m now one of the faces of AUK (according to Ivo – everyone knows Ivo, and Ivo knows everyone). It was like a who’s-who of Audax UK. I didn’t recognise anyone who was volunteering there, but I always try to remember the example of John Spooner. When I was helping at Middleton Tyas in 2009, he came into the kitchen before he left to say thanks to everyone. I hope I did half as well as John in showing my appreciation of the work volunteers put in.
Day 4 – Alston to Louth (277 km) – out of the hills and into the headwind – acoustic stress
There may not be a finer place and time than the Pennines in the early morning. Unless it’s the Pennines at early morning in late spring. But late summer’ll do.
I wouldn’t have minded crossing over at night, but sleep had definitely been the correct choice. I was a bit bleary-eyed, and I’ve never seen Graeme as grumpy as he was that morning. I think I helped by telling him to look around and see how knackered everyone else was – this comment drew a smirk from Brian behind him. I didn’t mean you, Brian, honest.
I got chance to say hello to Peter Davis, the chief controller at Barnard Castle, and Graeme and I introduced ourselves to the famous Mr Larrington, who was exactly as tall and hairy as advertised. He offered much-needed sarcasm when I couldn’t find the milk – I was expecting a jug, or a four-pint carton, but Barnie was that posh, they had a milk dispenser, with MILK/LAIT/MILCH written on it in all of the languages of the world. How the other half live. Barnie won the 2017 Best Control Building Award hands down – and I was daydreaming of a classic full English fry-up all the way from Alston, and that’s exactly what was on the menu at Barnie.
Annoyingly, as we left the hills and expected the going to get us going a bit, the wind shifted to a south-easterly for the leg to Thirsk. Anyone who ever said the Vale of Mowbray was flat has clearly mixed it up with the Vale of York, and I’ll always have a special place of loathing for the little kick up from the level crossing to Warlaby crossroads after Yafforth. It’s a blind summit, but still the traffic comes past.
I was looking for a few other people I knew who’d volunteered at Thirsk, but didn’t see any of them, and here Mark parted ways with Graeme and I – he was off home to York for another change of clothes and a bit of time out of the event. Graeme and I hacked along the A19 then via Stamford Bridge to Pocklington – it was shite.
After Pocklington, Graeme treated me to a little tour of the notable parishioners in his parish. And I don’t know how he arranged it, but we had a convoy behind us for the last stretch of the A1034 down to the A63. We rode side-by-side chatting and no cars came past us. Brilliant!
We called into Graeme’s home so he could have a shower and change of clothes. Graeme’s wife Carol tret me to a sit-down meal while calling us both nutters. It’s good to get out of the bubble once in a while and remind yourself what a preposterous thing you’re doing. Thanks Carol!
Back over the Humber Bridge. and Graeme and I were chatting about routes – I had the same main-road route I’d folllowed south plotted into my Garmin. We were officially in the South* now, so I wasn’t confident of navigating on the fly. Graeme had the official route, and we both thought it would be more sociable to ride with a bunch in this lovely evening, rather than hacking along main roads.
Then the rain started to fall. I paused under a railway bridge after Barton-upon-Suicide** to put on my overshoes, and for some reason Graeme carried on. Well, it was dark, and I was sure I saw him in a village before the A18 crossroads, but I waited in the rain for him, rode on, doubled back, then doubled back again, but I couldn’t find him. So I chased red lights to Caistor. In the rain and the dark, and with everyone being knackered, there was very little conversation.
At Caistor I stopped, went Fuck It, dug into my saddlepack for the backup emergency baccy I’d been carrying, and had a roll-up. I sent Graeme a text to let him know where I was and that I was a bit pissed off. Not at him, just generally pissed off. But also at him.
However, the road signs said Louth, and I could manage that. I eased back onto the road and up the bank. I saw a load of red lights turn left onto a little lane which I didn’t fancy following without knowing the way, and carried on – then I saw another pack of red lights on the main road. I thought they might have been a bunch of locals who knew the better way to Louth.
However, when I caught up, they weren’t Yellowbellies using their local knowledge. They were a bunch of Estonians who were utterly lost. Actual Estonians, not wannabe Spaniards. They said they’d lost their friend.
“Me too!” I said.
They said he’d had the only navigation to Louth.
“Me too!” I said.
They asked if I knew where I was going and if they could follow me – I said that was fine, as I’d be glad of the company, and I guided them along the main roads – mainly in silence. Fairly companionable silence, but there wasn’t much conversation.
At one point I asked one of them if he was tired, if he was OK. “No, not tired. Leetle beet peessed off, ectually”.
“Me too!” I nearly said.
I was concerned that we were heading too far south – I had a rough sense of the geography of the Lincolnshire Wolds in my head, and I knew that Louth was at the eastern side of the hills. I thought that we might pop out on the western side, then have to climb back over. But what a great route it turned out to be – more-or-less a steady climb along the B-road up to the A631 (shame my bike frame is 525, and where is the A525 anyway?), turn left, and more-or-less a steady descent into Louth. A single car passed us the whole length of the road.
I waited in Louth, chatted to the night mechanic, had a nap in a chair, and I was relieved when Graeme eventually turned up, having had a puncture. Mark was also on his way, but was sending me increasingly plaintive messages. When he did arrive, he recounted the tale of his hallucinating VC167 riders in the road up ahead and nearly riding into a ditch. Mike Lane, also at our table, said “You know what happens when you ride into a ditch? You hallucinate arriving at a lovely control like this”. Having never ridden into a ditch, neither Mark nor I felt able to comment.
Mark booked a 6 am wake-up call, which was absolutely the right choice. I had been tempted to ride on and hack across the Flatlands at night, when the winds are lighter and the powers of darkness are exalted. But I went to bed and booked a 5 am wake-up.
Day 5 – Louth to Loughton (258 km) – All Aboard the Cork Express – The Hill With No Top – Team Limp
I woke up at bang on 5 am. The rider next to me had set an alarm on his phone, which woke me, but he went straight back to sleep. At the other side, a rider had fallen asleep upright while re-packing his kit. You could tell it was that end of the ride.
I checked the dorm for Graeme, but he wasn’t there, and had in fact been up for over an hour and was into his second breakfast. We tried to work out how we’d missed one another the night before, but neither of us could.
I had a choice to make – stick with Graeme or wait for Mark. I was slightly annoyed at Graeme for chivvying me along when I’d been patience itself*** in waiting for others. You get grumpy at weird things at this stage of a ride, when you haven’t really had enough sleep. Sorry Graeme (again). I felt responsible for both of them which is ridiculous, as they’re both adults and both experienced riders. But they’d both helped me and I didn’t want to leave either.
I left Mark to sleep and rode on with Graeme. I didn’t give him a choice – we went straight along the main road to Horncastle from Louth. I’d tipped this road to a couple of AC Hackney riders who were leaving during the night, as it was a fair bit shorter than the official route, and though there was some climbing, it was big rollers rather than chewy up-and downs.
And that was it for the hills – goodbye hills, goodbye hills, goodbye shelter, goodbye trees and hedgerows. Hello flatlands, hello headwind.
A bunch of Irish riders came past and I shouted to Graeme “that’s our train!”. We hooked on the back and introduced ourselves. The lads explained that they were doing basic through-and offs with no more than a kilometre on the front. Fine by me.
They all stopped at a cafe, which seemed like a good idea, and after proper refuelling with bacon and other essentials, we rode on. I thought it worked really well, but Graeme struggled with the pace, and with his unlucky position in the paceline. Three of the lads were along the lines of 6’3″ ex-rugby players, but Graeme was stuck behind the skinny 5’8″ bloke sat in the drops. I was sad to wave the train goodbye, as they’d been brilliant, and unspeakably generous to other riders. After doing a turn, I dropped back down the line and spotted a little Taiwanese bloke who’d found his way in. One of the lads said “We take all nations”.
We picked up one German rider who wanted to dictate the pace and style. He was gibbering about echelons, but one of the lads put him into place when he said “we’re just keeping it simple”. As if we could have done echelons down an A-road. This didn’t deter the German fella, who was behind me when I was at the front, then started to ride off. I dropped back so as not to leave a gap to the train behind me, and I just left him hanging, going 0.000000001 kmph faster than us. I don’t know what that was all about.
Graeme and I dropped off before Spalding. I sent my mate a text as I know he’s ridden in Ireland. I told him that we’d cracked along the 30 kilometres into Spalding on the Cork Express, and that three of the lads were built like Andy Berne. Andy Berne is a strong rider in our club, and a big lad, hence the phrase “close the Berne door” when he gets on the front. My mate’s reply was “De Ronde Fine Dining Club?”. I guess they have a reputation, and what a great bunch of lads, so beers on me next time we meet.
Hitting the headwind after Spalding, we had a conflab about what we should do. I pointed out that we could have a pub stop in Crowland to break up the section to St Ives. We’d been chatting with Simon at Spalding – he caught us up, and agreed with our plan.
It was brilliant, and a terrible mistake. I paid for that pint into the headwind, and had to check out of the ride for a powernap downwind of a concrete shelter. I was only 5 km from St Ives. It had been tough going – I wanted to keep my gear turning and told Graeme I’d see him at St Ives, and I tried to tell myself that I was enjoying it, as it’s a completely different arena to my usual cycling around Durham and Teesdale. The Fens were an alien landscape, strange and beautiful. Big skies. I tried to convince myself I was enjoying this. I aimed for the wind shadow of a tree for a brief moment of relief, and as I passed it, I realised it was The Tree, The Tree of the Fens, which locals have worshipped for centuries (probably). I studied the landscape closely for any sign of change, of gentle rolls which would indicate I was leaving the Fens behind.
Luckily, going into St Ives, I was overtaken by a massive train led by AC Bristol, and managed to hook onto the back. While everyone was faffing, I nipped into the control, and was very impressed by how sharp everyone was. Phil Dyson forced my brevet card back into its wallet, and another volunteer took my hot drink order, then brought it to me at my table. I guess they had someone on point to warn them when a group was arriving.
Graeme and Simon were already there, and we starting winding volunteers up with tales of how the riders behind us had formed themselves into a massive peloton to deal with the headwinds. They were 400-strong, and they were stripping the land bare as they passed. Spalding control wasn’t even there any more!
We spent a while at Great Ives. I was fiddling with my luggage when Jon Banks rolled up, and when he asked how I was, I told him I was better than I had been a couple of hours before. He replied: “Now you know what hell is – the flatlands with a headwind”.
We seemed to pick up a tailwind leaving St Ives, though. The route took us along probably the most fabulous cyclepath I’ve ridden in this country, alongside the guided busway to Cambridge. It’s not without its hazards, though – I was about to point out the giant canyon in our path when someone behind me went “WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?!”
We negotiated it safely. I think. Dead randonneurs tell no tales.
The same lads from AC Bristol led us along the cyclepath, until Graeme and I volunteered to share the work for a bit, before we peeled off in Cambridge to “do our own thing”. I reckon they interpreted this as meaning we knew a main road route to Great Easton, but I was well off the edge of my map, and we’d always planned to stop for a coffee in Cambridge. Which we did, and cheered any random riders that passed. Cambridge was great – properly cycle-friendly and with usable cyclepaths. They noticeably deteriorated towards the edge of town, though, and Graeme reckoned that was where the official tour had ended with the words “Yes, they’re all like this”.
I was drained. I was starting to lose my appetite and I struggled to eat even the fruit salad that Colin kindly offered at St Ives. We had loads of time in hand and we had less than 100 km to go, but it was hard going. We passed a pub named the Cock in a gorgeous Essex village. Dusk had fallen, and the bells were pealing out from the village church. Not your trainee bell-ringers, these were the real deal. I imagined stopping, getting a pint and a bed, and sitting on the benches outside to cheer the passing riders. It was a wrench to leave.
But we had a job to do. Great Easton was a control we only visited southbound, and in the tradition of audax controls, it was at the top of a hill. I managed to blag extra rice pudding as it was about all I could eat, warned Pat Hurt (of Go Iddu!) fame about the swarm of cyclists descending upon his sleepy little control in Darkest Essex, and got my head down for 20 minutes on the floor in the quiet room.
And then something brilliant happened.
Mark and Andrew had arrived in company with some of the AC Hackney crew, and I’d mentioned in passing that Graeme was having a hard time. I think I said “His knee’s fucked and he doesn’t think he can make it”. More-or-less true, and my tact filters tend to take a break after 1000 kms.
Andrew mentioned this to Olaf, and this earned us an invite to Olaf’s group which was taking a flat route to the finish. I’m pretty sure he said flat, but I’m convinced he meant flatter. Do they have comparative adjectives in German?
After I’d woken up, and before I left, Andrew took me aside and warned me about a couple of Italians who were a bit all over the road. I wondered why he was telling me about some random Italians, but he warned me: “No, not random Italians, some specific Italians who’ll be in your group”.
Olaf had taken them under his wing to mother-hen them back to the finish – much like the rest of us. I invited Neil Veitch along when I spotted him lurking at the finish, and a couple of other people caught the word, so we were a grupetto of about 12 when we rolled out. “Welcome to Team Limp”, I said to the new recruits.
Olaf did it properly, and asked for a couple of people to act as Tail-End Charlies and watch the back – Graeme and I volunteered. Our job was to sweep up any slower riders, chivvy people along, and to make sure no one started following us when we left the official route. This nearly happened in an Essex village, and Graeme went and invited this bunch to join us. I soon put them off when I told them our average speed, mind, and I pointed out to Graeme that you have to rank sergeant or above to be able to recruit to Team Limp…
Having a job to do was great for both Graeme and I – the small responsibility took our minds off our own woes. I’ll never forget one point when a rider was flagging, and dropping off, and Graeme asked him to pick up his pace a bit.
The rider was in a lot of pain, and told Graeme that he didn’t need to wait. Graeme said that he kinda did, but the rider said he really didn’t. Graeme thought about this, and said “You’re right, I don’t. Except I do, so please catch up with the group”.
In response the rider let out a Hulk roar which echoed off the houses and charged up the road to catch up with the disappearing red lights.
My contribution was mainly trying to work out the Italian for “Get on the fucking left”, as the Italian riders had a tendency to drift over the road. Neil was a star, and rode alongside one rider to keep him at the left, and also to light his way, as his front light was… inadequate.
After a while of shouting “Lefto! Sinistero! Gaucho!”, Graeme asked me to stop ending every word with “-o”. I’ll bet Stan Hope never misjudged his audience.
La sinistra, it turns out. I was so close.
Olaf was wonderful, and the pace matched the advertised 17 kph. We snuck through the Essex night and rolled into Loughton at about 2.15 which gave me 6 hours or so in hand, and I nearly passed out at the finish. Later…symptoms indicated that this was probably some sort of gastroenteritis. However, it got me a bed at the finish, and it’s a tactic I intend to employ on future rides.
I volunteered on the event in 2009 and 2013 rather than riding, and one reason was ambivalence about the route – I was never keen on the southern bits, and I can ride the northern bits from my doorstep. What drew me in this time was how Danial Webb has grown the event, with its worldwide bunch of riders and volunteers, the fantastic atmosphere at the different controls, and the opportunity to ride with people from all over the world and see your roads anew, as you see them through other eyes.
It’s a wonderful celebration of what’s best in UK long-distance cycling – despite its size, you still get that sense of sneaking through the landscape, while all honest folk are abed and no one knows what you’re up to, and it still has that volunteer-led village-halls-and-cakes atmosphere which is a hallmark of UK audaxes. If I’m around in 2021, I’ll definitely be involved in some way – as a volunteer, or a rider. Either would be great, and I wouldn’t let the event pass by without taking part.
*It starts/ends at the Humber.
*** Ok, ok…