London Edinburgh London (LEL) is a 1540km (and 14000m+ of cumulative elevation) self-supported cycle ride across the United Kingdom, between the capital cities of England and Scotland. It’s a ranndoneuring event which means it’s not a race but has a strict time limit to finish the fixed route. This year it was 128 hours to ride from the north of London to just past Edinburgh and back. You can do whatever you want with the time – ride, sleep, drink beer at the pubs but the clock never stops. You either make it and are a finisher, or don’t and are classified as DNF, pretty simple. The event is organised every four years so it is kind of a big deal for the people that decide to participate.
I have registered for the event back in 2019 and the event was initially supposed to take place in 2021 but was pushed later due to the pandemic. It’s surreal to arrive at the starting point on Saturday, a day before the start to complete the registration and pick up my rider’s number and see participants from all over the world in all sorts of bicycles (and tricycles!). This year it’s 1600 participants from more than 80 different countries.
I also get to know a fellow Lithuanian who lives in the UK, Rimas, who is an experienced ranndoneur and is hanging around the registration. He is not planning to start tomorrow and came just to say hello to friends from all over the world who he meets in other international events. However, it isn’t difficult for them to convince him that he should use his holiday wisely and join tomorrow at the start line to participate. I meet Rimas the next day at the start, he says he had enough time to go home, charge the batteries, pack a few things, sleep for four hours and get to the start. I, on the other hand, am in no rush, register, go back to the hostel I’m staying, and still have plenty of time to relax and go to bed early. Surprisingly I have no issues falling asleep and have a good night’s sleep.
Day 1: 302km & 1750m
Participants start in waves of 50 riders every 15 minutes and my start time is 09:45 am. It’s a good mix of people in my group, including a tandem and a recumbent bicycle. We start off at a brisk pace, everyone is quite eager and big fast groups are forming on the road. It’s a bit faster than ideal for me for such a long distance but I enjoy the slightly-too-fast start of the brevets as long as I’m confident I will not completely blow up. The group I’m riding with is getting faster and faster as we catch people and they jump on and there are more people that are eager to keep the pace at the front. It splits at some point and I stay with the slower half of the group. It’s fascinating to see this dynamic with so many people doing the same route but having different fitness levels, strategy and riding plans. I also get to chat with different riders in these ever-forming groups. It’s hot and part of my left foot starts to go numb which sometimes happens in hot weather and longer distances for me. I’m a bit concerned considering it’s happening on day 1 already but since it doesn’t prevent me from turning the pedals in any way, I don’t think about it too much. My plan is to do four control points today and sleep at Hessle just beyond the long (2.2km) Humber bridge. I’m decently efficient at the controls, stamping my brevet card, eating and having a bathroom break in roughly 30 minutes each control which means I usually catch up to faster people in controls.
Generally the views are rather boring as it’s pancake flat but it’s my first time cycling in the UK countryside so I enjoy the small towns and a different scenery from what I am used to in Lithuania. I cross the Humber bridge in the dark and hope to see it in daylight on the way back. Which if all goes well is almost four days away… I’m trying not to think so far ahead. I do the first 100km averaging 28km/h and 300km until the night stop averaging 26km/h which is a record for me. I wonder if it will bite me later even though I feel good. This means I arrive at Hessle for my night stop at just before midnight, more than two hours faster than I expected. I wonder if I will be able to fall asleep but I stamp my card, eat dinner, get a shower and have no problems falling asleep.
Sleeping at LEL requires a brief section by itself. The control points usually take place in various schools and the sports hall is converted to a sleeping hall by inflating a couple of hundred mattresses on the floor and giving a slightly itchy semi-wool blanket to each person. The mattresses are placed less than a metre apart to maximise the amount of people that can sleep at the same time. Imagine sleeping in this arrangement together with a hundred or so other snoring and farting riders. Add to this the fact that people are arriving and leaving regularly throughout the night and it can make sleeping difficult for a lot of participants, especially the light sleepers.
This particular control was also giving out ear plugs which was a nice touch. I carry my own because I read about the sleeping at LEL beforehand and knew what to expect but I have a difficult relationship with ear plugs. They tend to fall out for me rather quickly and are quite annoying. I decide to try the ones they are handing out and actually read the instructions on the box on how to properly insert them. I don’t know if it’s the instructions or the ear plugs themselves but they stay solid in my ears and I sleep like a baby for four hours.
Day 2: 269 km & 3400 m
I get up at 04:40 in the morning and am very happy I took my Garmin watch with me as I get woken up by the vibration alarm on the watch. You are not allowed to have sound alarms in the sports hall and instead you request a wake up time at the volunteers desk and they wake you up when it’s your turn. Or are supposed to because they forgot to wake me up at 04:30. In retrospect, all other nights I got woken up by volunteers without a hitch and I think the system they were using here to write down the wake up times was just messy and difficult for volunteers to keep track of. Generally the masses of volunteers at LEL are a huge part of the event and they are doing a tremendous job and keeping their (and riders!) spirits high even when dealing with some tired, disoriented or grumpy riders while being themselves tired in the middle of the night.
I eat a quick breakfast and set off for the first proper hills of the route. It’s a beautiful morning with the narrow country roads twisting and turning through a valley. I’m very happy that I didn’t push further yesterday in the dark and instead get to enjoy this in the golden hour of the sunrise. I enjoy the 67 hilly kilometres to the next control in Malton but they are in the middle of changing the breakfast menu to a lunch menu in the canteen there which results in very little food available at this time. There are two things available: Weetabix (dry cereal bars that you can eat with milk) and a few last slices of bread. The cereal bars are horrible, you probably need to live longer in the UK than I have to get used to them. So I eat some cereal and then switch to a couple of bread slices with butter. I don’t even toast them as there is a queue. I think I’ll just eat some of my snacks on the road and eat properly at the next control.
There are two mistakes with this plan: next control is 113km and 1200m of climbing away. The climbs are super steep. It’s a hard effort but also I love the scenery of the Howardian Hills in bloom. I wish I had eaten more though as it’s tough riding without a proper breakfast and relying only on the granola bars I had with me.
Eventually though I get to Barnard Castle and the canteen there is one of the best of the entire LEL route. Lots of options, you can eat as much as you want (in some controls food was rationed as the volunteers were afraid to run out of food for the remaining riders behind) and it’s so delicious! The control is in a very old school building and the hall looks majestic. After filling myself, I take the example of others and have a 10 minute lie down on the grass outside in the shade.
The next section tackles the two biggest climbs in the route one of which is the highest point. I feel a bit tired now after almost 500km but I had a change of socks this morning which help with my left foot so I don’t have any issues and am determined to tackle the climbs. I notice that I am spending way more time in the controls than yesterday though and whatever time I gained I’m spending on these longer stops. The climbs are shorter than I expected but steep. It was not too difficult as I enjoy climbing but the descents were scary steep. I hit 75km/h without pedalling on one in what feels like an instant before I feather the brakes. Knowing the route comes back the same way on this section it might get spicy in a couple of days. It starts to get dark and chilly on the second descent and I decide to stop by the Nook Farm Cafe even though it’s not too far from the next control where I plan to sleep. The cafe owners are open overnight specifically for LEL on their own initiative which was a nice gesture and I feel it’s common courtesy to pay them a visit. I have a hot soup and a sandwich, both of which are excellent. I take another sandwich for the road and get to Brampton control around 11pm. Since I’ve already eaten, I skip the canteen and go check the beds situation. There are beds (mattresses) available so I decide to sort out my drop bag and kit for the next morning as it’s not very late yet and I’d rather spend the time faffing now and wake up slightly later. I sort out my gear for the morning, have a shower and when I come to the sleeping hall, I learn that there are no more beds available. Bummer. However, the volunteers take me to the outside marquee which has the same inflatable mattresses and blankets and acts as an overflow place. I try to get another four hours of sleep but it’s chilly and gets progressively colder throughout the night. I wake up numerous times from the cold.
Day 3: 349km & 3500m
I requested a 4am wake up but I get up shortly before that as I once again wake up from the cold and realise it’s time to hit the road soon anyway. Another 4 hours of sleep and considering the rough night I don’t feel too bad. It’s absolute chaos in the corridors of the control in the morning as apparently a lot of people arrived after me and either didn’t fit in the marquee or decided it’s too cold for them and crashed in every corner of the building.
I make a mistake and change into a new pair of shorts that I thought were comfortable but after 150 km learn that they are not. On the other hand, I have never done a brevet that’s longer than 600km and I’m approaching 750km now so maybe it’s just the time on the bike and not the shorts. Either way, this is the beginning of my saddle sores. I also start to feel numbness in a couple of my left hand fingers. On the positive side, I enter Scotland and the hills in Scotland are rather scenic. It’s a lot of up and down through the rolling hills so it’s not easy but definitely not boring as well.
The heatwave is still here and it’s getting hot even in Scotland. With the hills it makes for tough going but I feel elevated when I finally see the three bridges over river Forth in Edinburgh from one of the hilltops. The halfway point is at the Dunfermline control just over the bridge. I reach the halfway point at 3pm and decide to take my time at the control hoping it will cool down a bit. I managed to wash my dirty pair of comfortable kit in one of the controls and dry them on the bike while riding so I change into them now, generously applying chamois cream. The saddle sores are to stay though and my goal is not to make it worse. I also notice my stomach is acting weird and think it’s just a one-off.
When I leave the control after an hour and a half, it seems it didn’t cool down at all but rather got even warmer. I’m on my way back though and the spirits are high. The thing that is bothering me is the stomach though. It’s definitely not a one-off and I scrap my plan to go off-route for half an hour and explore Edinburgh a bit. I follow the route with a group through the city and see some of the city center along the route. The organisers did a great job to plan an enjoyable route that crosses central Edinburgh. Riding out of the city, I have to strategically start planning my toilet breaks as my stomach problem intensifies. I have to basically stop in the bushes every hour and the bushes in the UK are annoying – they either don’t exist in the expanse of farmland or you have to navigate some barbed wire fences to get to them. It’s very frustrating that something like this can end my ride as it’s simply not sustainable spending so much time stopping, let alone decreases the enjoyment of the ride itself. On the other hand, as I focus on my stomach, I forget about the saddle sores and the numb fingers. It’s fascinating how much psychology there is in pain and discomfort management.
The golden hour of the evening is absolutely stunning and I enjoy the views even with my stomach issues. Wyndham, a rider from the UK who is in the same starting group as I am, catches up after one of my bush stops and we ride together chatting and enjoying this scenery. Until now we were on different rhythms – usually he is a bit faster than me but I spend less time in the controls and I would meet him in almost every control, sometimes even have a meal and a quick chat together. Our plan is the same – we are somewhat behind our plans and want to ride through the night to make up some time. I want to meet my wife Toma who is riding self-supported from London to Edinburgh one-way (and then taking a train to London for my expected finish) and ideally stay in the same B&B as she is tonight. Otherwise, I might not see her as either I would pass her while she sleeps or vice-versa. Wyndham and I ride through the night and it’s a very cold one. We are in a valley with a heavy fog from a mountain river and my computer shows +6C. Our jackets are wet from the humidity. The full moon is stunning and I quite enjoy the night riding, all things considered. I’m also lucky that Wyndham is together as his light lights up the whole road and I can take the descents full speed. With only my own weaker headlight I would have to slow down to stay safe on the steeper sections. I do avoid a duck in the middle of the road in one corner so you have to watch out for the animals roaming around in the night. I reach the pub / B&B at 4 am and wish a safe night to Wyndham for the last 20km or so to the control. I wake up Toma and we have a brief chat before going to sleep again. It was worth pushing forward for the chat 🙂 I have been up for more than 24 hours and dealing with several issues so I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.
Day 4: 226km & 2500m
Even though the bed is comfy and no one snores, I sleep for only 3.5 hours as I want to make use of the morning cool to cover some ground until the heat kicks in. I’m very quick to leave the B&B as I expect the breakfast to be more efficient at the control. The saddle sores in the morning are the worst. I might have talked with myself out loud using some expletives and it takes me half an hour to get somewhat comfortable sitting down. I realised that a lot of people are spending the mornings riding solo because the saddle sores make your pace very erratic – you want to stand up and stop pedalling regularly, trying to find a comfortable position. The moans of other riders actually make you feel better realising you’re not the only one 🙂 As the day progresses, more similar pace groups are forming and people are more chatty as they successfully get into cohabitation with their bums. Today is the day for the two big climbs again and I stop by the Nook Farm Cafe again before I tackle them to have a cold coke and some pastries.
I notice that it’s getting difficult to shift front gears with my numb left hand fingers. In the worst case, I’ll use my right hand to push the left lever. I don’t need to change gears in the front that often anyway. This illness is common in the ultra-distance cycling scene and is even known as Cyclist’s palsy. On the upside, I manage to fix my stomach by eating less carbs and more protein and fat in the controls. I also try to stick to 1-2 foods at a time and not cram everything in each control as in the first couple of days. I deal with the climbs slowly but steadily – yes, it’s hot, yes, it’s very steep but I have done many climbs in different countries and learnt to enjoy them. I start walking in the steepest sections as it’s more efficient to walk than cycle, plus my bum doesn’t hurt when I walk. Things are actually starting to look bright as I realise that I learnt to deal with the pains and still enjoy the ride majority of the time. Does my bum hurt? Yes, but it hurt even more in the morning and then after an hour it hurt less. So it will probably hurt less an hour from now and it’s best to try and ignore it right now. I start believing that a finish for me is likely as I can manage all the current discomforts I have and the distance remaining decreases with every pedal stroke.
I catch up with a velomobile on one of the hills and those things are fascinating. In the flats they pass me at speeds of 50km/h+ seemingly without much effort due to the low aerodynamic drag. After seeing yet another beautiful sunset, I arrive at Malton just past 11pm where I plan to spend the night. It’s a short day as I started it later than usual but there are no big hills remaining between me and the finish.
Day 5: 399km & 2600m
3.5 hours of sleep later, I get up at 4am, rinse and repeat. Another morning, another saddle sore moment. By now I know how to deal with them but it’s still somewhat annoying. The last few days I spend a lot of time in the aerobars even when it’s not that efficient just to reduce pressure on the saddle. This also means I ride solo longer as I consider drafting behind someone in the aerobars dangerous – your brakes are a second further away. I spend 3+ hours solo this morning passing a few other riders who show no interest in taking my wheel. This is probably one of the longer stretches I rode solo in the entire LEL. I’m riding through the morning fog and it’s so calm and beautiful. I’m not sure if it’s the beauty around or the realisation that I’m going to make it (even though the finish is still 400km away) or all of the emotions that compressed in the last four days bursting out but I cry a little while riding. This is what people call tears of joy. After exercising, the runner’s high normally lasts up to an hour for me. I am in this blissful state for perhaps 15 hours today.
Halfway throughout the day I start thinking about my finish. I think I can comfortably go all the way to the finish line which means I would get there around 4am. Since Toma wants to meet me at the finish, I don’t want to make her get up in the middle of the night just to greet me. This means I should take things slow and stop for a nap so I finish at a more civilised time in the morning. I get to the Boston control which is just over 200km from the finish and eat a late lunch with Wyndham there again. It’s very hot now so I decide to use my spare time to take a nap on the grass outside. I get woken up by Wyndham letting me know that there is a fast group of riders forming that will leave shortly. The next section is pancake flat through the Fens so sounds like fun to hop onto the fast train of riders. I join them and we are not pushing hard but still doing 30km/h due to a slight tail/cross-wind which is unheard of in the Fens going southbound.
I arrive at St. Ives control at 9.30pm and sit down to eat with some of the people I have been riding with a lot lately. The chat at the dinner table is lively with everyone very aware and joyful that we will make it to the finish soon (just 118km away). It’s very different from most of the previous stops where people were checking how they are doing against their plan, trying to be efficient and eating fast. This time it feels like a bunch of friends having dinner, sitting around just enjoying the moment. Everyone is making plans for their finish, texting their spouses or relatives on the approximate finish time. Wyndham and I decide to take a nap here and leave together at 02:45am for the last stretch while his friend Chris decides to push through the night as he doesn’t want to endure another morning with the saddle sores.
Since I really enjoyed my time at the dinner table, I get to bed quite late which means I only get 2 hours of sleep but I feel alright – it’s the last stretch! The last hundred or so kilometres are not as easy as I expected but largely uneventful except for one missed turn which means we have to backtrack and this adds an extra 5km to our ride. We ride through Cambridge centre at night which is again a nice touch by the route planners. I finish in just under 5 days (120 hours).
I later learn that only 60% of people managed to finish on time which is roughly in line with the previous editions of LEL. It’s somewhat surprising because this year the weather was fantastic with no rain at all and wind not being a factor (compared to 5 years ago when it rained a lot and there were heavy headwinds) but I guess for some the heat was a big issue this time. LEL is probably the most difficult thing I have ever done but I managed to enjoy it most of the time. I was in a good rhythm and even though I slept in total only 17 hours in 5 days, I never felt sleepy. I also enjoyed the night riding a lot, even though I wish I could have seen all the scenery in daylight. Let’s see how long it takes for my sore bum and my numb fingers to recover.