Homeboy’s Odyssey

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Epic Riding on home soil….Dave Morrison’s 2017 LEL

London-Edinburgh-London weighs in at over 1400km and only takes place every four years. It doesn’t have the history of Paris-Brest-Paris but I think our British version may be getting a bit of a reputation internationally, as the 1,500 places were snapped up very quickly, with over half the entrants from overseas. The Saturday registration was a sight to marvel with entrants in evidence from all over the world: Europe, USA, Canada, Brazil, India and all over the rest of Asia.. in all 60 countries were represented.

I got to the start early on Sunday morning hoping to see local Ruislip rider Mark Eidam off, I just missed him as it happens but I’d see him en route subsequently. He was one of the riders given an early start with a target of 100 hours. I had opted for a 117 hour limit and a later start at 9.30am but, nevertheless, one of the earlier waves. This is designed to ensure that riders are spread across the route at any one time and there aren’t bottlenecks at controls. Controls are, typically, schools and the canteen serves food whilst the gym offers showers and sleeping (on the floor).

I sat in the canteen at the start chatting with a gentleman who had come from Indonesia.  I spun tales of ferocious winds in the fens and he very kindly gave me an LEL cycling cap especially made up by Audax Indonesia. Steve Britt, from Ealing, suggested that I wear it under my cycling helmet, as the peak helps keep rain off one’s glasses. Having previously moaned repeatedly when riding at night that rain on my glasses makes it hard to navigate from my bike computer as light fragments, especially from car lights, I think Steve was investing in a scheme to avoid listening to me whinge!

 

Although it is advisable to have a rough plan in one’s mind, so much happens on these rides that, to my mind, too much of a rigid plan can be detrimental. I tend to aim for sleep deprivation early on, so that when I do stop to sleep, then I nod straight off and don’t waste time. So, Steve and I rode together with a loose ambition of getting to Thirsk, in Yorkshire, for our first sleep, and reaching Edinburgh by Monday night – we achieved neither!

Good early progress was blighted when one of Steve’s cleats decided to break and he had to ride the Lincolnshire Wolds, effectively, one footed at night on a Sunday evening in the wilderness… fair play, he did it without whinging too! So we ended up stopping at Pocklington, one control earlier than Thirsk.

 

Some food and a couple of hours on a blow-up mattress under a blanket on a gymasium floor and we were set to go again at 5am. Unfortunately, no-one at Pocklington had a spare cleat and the local bike shop didn’t open until 9am, we couldn’t lose 4 hours. The same at Thirsk, but there was a bike shop 8 miles away, off route in Northallerton. Judging by the number of off course riders visiting that shop, it must have been the best Monday morning’s business they’ve ever done. Going off route cost us time, but Steve was back to full power… onwards and northwards!

After Barnard Castle, the route gets lumpy, with the 14km climb of Yad Moss the pick of the ride. Basically, a cracking climb up to the source of the river Tees. The descent, was fantastic, it even had some rough cobbles worthy of any Belgian classic at the end!

Into Scotland, and through Gretna Green before dusk, but Edinburgh was looking debateable by Monday night. We arrived at Moffat, one control short of our target and the heavens opened, so we stayed put for another couple of hours sleep, behind schedule. The Devil’s Beef Tub was the next iconic climb, and pretty much started at Moffat without any easy kms to warm up on! The fact is that the route was scenic from London all the way, but this was, nevertheless a big highlight.

We passed the Roslyn Chapel (think Da Vinci Code) and just before Edinburgh my front derailleur decided to pack up. I got it reset at the control, but it wasn’t going to last! Nevertheless, we enthusiastically left Edinburgh for a return journey of which I was familiar with the first section to Innerleithen. I spent some of the early parts telling Steve about the long climbs I’d done in to a headwind… and sure enough, it was headwinds all the way. I can’t really do justice to how hard a headwind all the way from Edinburgh to London is. There is always likely to be some sort of headwind, but the veterans were telling us, 

this was worse than anyone had experienced before!

I spent most of the day on the front of groups, nobody wanted to be on the front, but I was determined to get as far south as possible looking forward to a relatively flat ride in Eastern England to the finish. Things were not going to plan though. You may never have heard of Eskdalemuir, but it hosts the biggest Buddhist monastery outside Asia and holds the record for the most rainfall in 30 minutes ever. Inevitably, and you know what’s coming, I got caught in a monsoon style downpour and in the few minutes it took me to spot a tree to pull under I got soaked. I got really cold and spent ages at the next control trying to warm up and dry out. We eventually got back to Brampton (England), planning to push on over Yad Moss overnight, but changed our minds and took a couple of hours kip before engaging the monster climb and its early cobbles.

One thing I learned was that the wind drops a little at nightime, and doing Yad Moss very early that morning was probably a blessing. It had been windy enough on the northbound journey, heaven knows what it was like later that day! I was determined to make Louth that night, but Steve was suffering with his back as a result of pedalling with one cleat for so long and I had neck ache.

I managed to work out that the neck ache was actually due to my Indonesian cap making me tilt my head slightly more than usual, so it duly went in my saddlebag. Unfortunately, no quick fix for Steve’s back though and he stopped north of the Humber for some sleep whilst I pressed on for Louth in Lincolnshire… hmmm, not sure I got that call right!

I got over the Humber Bridge in daylight, but I was getting stomach cramps and was forced to stop a few times. I was losing time, then as night fell it started to rain. I was struggling to read my bike computer in the dark with rain on my glasses and the screen. Steve certainly dodged the whinging! This was compounded by the fact that there was a problem with the GPX file we had been supplied with, such that the only way to use a bike computer was to look at the GPX file for the northbound journey and ride it backwards. Unfortunately, this means that if you do go off course, your Garmin won’t ‘bleep’ to tell you. I was going so slowly trying to ensure that I was still on course that my speed, including the enforced ‘comfort stops’ is too embarrassing to publish. I was sure somebody would come along soon and I could sit on their wheel. I rode for absolutely ages, all alone, before eventually a small group caught me, but they had the same idea and sat on my wheel! It turned out that they had no GPX file to follow. Eventually, with the help of one guy, we all got to Louth in the rain and I took three hours much needed sleep. As I was leaving, Steve arrived and we planned to set off together. I got up the first hill and expected Steve to catch me, but he didn’t and I assumed we’d meet at Spalding. The headwind in Lincolnshire was worse than Scotland and the North because of the flat nature of the terrain, this was hard work. My front derailleur then went again

. I got it bodged together again at Spalding, but Steve hadn’t got there by the time I was up and running. I was quite keen to get back to Loughton, as I needed to get home from the finish somehow and didn’t want to finish much after 9pm, and risk either public transport closing down en route or a lack of relatives willing to pick me up. I pressed on alone into the ever stronger wind.

I have ridden the roads from Spalding to St.Ives along the fens several times and it’s always tough in the wind. But I’d never experienced anything like this, and many riders commented the same. Luckily I teamed up with two Belgians and the three of us did echelons for 40kms. It was agony and I was somewhat comforted by the fact that they were in pain too. One of them said to me that he did LEL four years ago and struggled that section when riding alone, but this time it was even harder and he had the benefit of our echelons!

In tried to ring my wife from St.Ives but got no answer. I wanted to explain that the winds were such that it was hard to predict when I’d be back, but thought I’d have a better idea once I reached Great Easton. We pressed on through Cambridge City Centre and lost a few foreigners in our, now swelled, group who wanted to stop and take photos. A Norwegian told me that this was much harder than Paris-Brest-Paris and the two Americans from North Carolina kept making me laugh with their humour.

I checked my phone at Great Easton control and there was a message from my wife saying she was driving over to Loughton early evening as I’d, hitherto, failed to inform her of my arrival time! Of my God! I scoffed some food post haste, bid farewell to the Americans and jumped on the bike full of guilt. They told my wife at the Arrivée in Loughton that I’d checked in at Great Easton, and it was a three hour ride from there… guilt-

 

fuelled I did it in two hours and twenty minutes. Fortunately, she wasn’t too angry and had been chatting to other (patient) spouses and volunteers during the four hours she was there to while away the time.

So, 107 hours, I probably could have done it quicker, but given that only 56% of the starters made the time cut, I’ll take that. Steve rolled in with time to spare too. A further 10% finished, but not within the time cut (they still got a medal but not an official finish), whilst 34% abandoned. It is longer than Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), had harsh winds on the return, wet in places and a fair bit of climbing. It doesn’t have the roadside crowds of PBP, but the controls seemed better to me, albeit marginally. The volunteers who give up five days to work unpaid and sleep under blankets in school gyms should be recognised, a really selfless sacrifice. This is an epic, well organised, event for sure and should be recognised as such.

There’s loads more to tell, but that’s the gist of it… Homer’s Odyssey spanned 10 years, this Homeboy’s Odyssey just felt like it at times, but it is a glorious event and Britain should be proud… so where were the media then? I suspect that the 2021 will garner more attention, but whether or not the media fall in love with it, Britain has a world class Randonée on its hands!

Dave Morrison

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