By Phil Creel
In July 2005 Woody Graham and I left from Columbia, South Carolina and joined a few dozen other US randonneurs in England to take part in the London-Edinburgh-London event. This is a 1400 kilometer randonnée put on by Audax UK with a time limit of a little less than five days. Before and after the ride we were guests of Woody's friends Barb and Ken Robson in the village of East Oakley, Hampshire. At all times when we were in the custody of the Robsons, and at large upon the English countryside, we were shown hospitality far beyond anything that we deserved or were expecting.
Sunday morning, July 17, we hit the ground running by doing an Audax UK 200 kilometer brevet, the Oakley Summer Breezer, which Ken had organized. Ken and some friends have a bike touring company, Britain By Bike, www.gbbike.com, which runs brevets and longer tours. The Summer Breezer started from the East Oakley community center. When I assemble my S&S-equipped bike with rack and fenders there are inevitably fasteners which are left untightened. The loose bolts popped off a few kilometers into the ride, forcing me to stop and do a zip tie repair to one of my fender stays. Our route went into Wiltshire, through Marlbor-ough and passing the fields of stone monoliths at Avebury. We skirted the Salisbury Plain and turned back east past Salisbury, then along the Test Valley through Mottisfont and Stockbridge, and back to East Oakley. We had a good introduction to riding in the English lanes and following the style of route sheet that we would be using on LEL. In addition we met several riders whom we rode with the following week on LEL.
Woody and I spent several days doing rides out of Oakley on routes suggested by Ken. I am not ashamed to say that I am a big fan of the books of Richard Adams. It slowly dawned on me that we were riding all around the actual Watership Down. If you would like to see some pictures of that country, go to http://www.mayfieldiow.freewire.co.uk/watershp/. After a few hair-raising experiences we became minimally competent at riding on the left side of the road and enjoyed the scenery. One evening as we passed a patch of woods at sunset a young badger emerged and got a good look at us before retreating. Later in the week we were invited on the Thursday morning ride of the Reading Bicycle Club. This ride took us out to the picturesque village of Hungerford with a cake stop at The Tutti Pole tea shop.
Friday morning we found plenty to do with last minute packing. After considering all the alternatives, Woody and I had decided to take a cab to Cheshunt, our starting point for LEL. The cab arrived on schedule around 11 a.m., and our bikes and luggage easily fit inside. Traffic was light and we arrived at the Lee Valley Youth Hostel around 12:30. That afternoon we completed our registration for LEL. I did a 25 km ride on the LEL route as a shakedown and discovered a little play in my headset. A mechanic was set up on the hostel grounds, so I was able to get the headset tightened up. Woody and I were sharing a room at the hostel with two other Americans and two British riders. The ride director gave a short welcoming speech at dinner in the hostel dining room and everyone turned in early.
On the morning of Saturday, July 23, Woody and I were on our bikes at the Cheshunt train station awaiting our start. Three hundred kilometers north of us another group of starters began the ride from Thorne, near Doncaster. Sometime around 9 am we were on our way. Within a few kilometers a large part of our starting group, including Woody, had missed a turn and was heading off in the wrong direction. Thanks to some route scouting the day before I at least got out of Cheshunt before becoming lost for the first time.
Saturday was my worst day for being lost and I rode many kilometers off the route. The route instructions were different from those used by rides in the US. Many of the lanes lack street signs, having only a sign indicating the direction to the next town. For this reason the cue sheet instruction will be something like "1.5 R on LH bend lane BENINGTON" meaning after 1.5 kilometers take a right hand turn on a left hand bend onto a lane marked by a sign indicating the direction to Benington, which is a town that you will pass through." The LEL route going north skirted Cambridge and headed into downtown Lincoln where the control was a youth hostel.
My first day's goal was Thorne, where I arrived late Saturday night. Woody had passed me at some point and continued another hundred kilometers before taking a rest break. I slept on the floor of the lobby of the Thorne rugby club for an hour, then headed back out. By Sunday morning I was riding through Yorkshire past the incredible Castle Howard and the bombastic 19th century monument to the Seventh Earl of Carlisle. A bag drop was offered at the control at Hovingham. I got a shower there and changed into clean shorts, then took a short nap.
My route following skills improved greatly the next afternoon and I rode through the rest of the day without any miscues. In northern England we saw sheep everywhere, black, white and in combinations. I rode up behind three sheep on the road, walking together in a row. They were unable to run into the field because of a fence, so they continued to run, in formation, in front of me until they were able to slip through a gate. I discovered that the real utility of mud guards on English roads is connected to these ubiquitous sheep. We rode through spectacular scenery in the Northern Pennines past the youth hostel control at Langdon Beck and the climb and descent of a hill called Yad Moss. Were you aware that Yad Moss is England's premier ski slope? http://www.thepriceofcheese.com/index.htm. A purple heather was in bloom on the hillsides. Our route took us through Alston, the highest town in England. Some of its steep streets are maintained as cobbles, which are rather difficult to climb and descend.
By evening I had arrived at my next sleep stop in Canonbie, Scotland, where I caught up with Woody. Canonbie is a small town a few kilometers north of the Scottish border. The control was in a large hall with a stage which was being used as the sleeping area. I ate something and lay down for a three-hour nap. On Monday morning at 4 a.m. I left Canonbie with Woody and an English rider named Ian. Our route gradually climbed through evergreen forests of the Scottish Borders in a cold mist, which changed to a light rain at times. Woody picked his pace up and rode ahead. Again, the scenery was amazing. The startling sight of Buddhist temples and statuary greeted us at the Tibetan Buddhist monastery at Eskdalemuir. Our next stop was the town of Ettrick, probably the most remote control.
For a look at Ettrick, see http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/ettrick/ettrick/index.html.
Further north we passed through Interleithen, a popular base for backpackers in the region. Around noon we reached the Dalkeith rugby club, our Edinburgh control and turnaround point for the ride. I had a good lunch, pumped up my tires, and headed out with several English riders. The sky had cleared and we had a lovely sunny day for riding. Back in Ettrick we had a conversation with a man of 93 years who said that he still enjoyed 40-mile bike rides. We stopped in Eskdalemuir to get a better look at what appeared to be a pagoda and a Buddha resting on a cobra situated in the middle of a pond.
In the early evening on Monday I arrived at the Canonbie control, had some dinner, and left with Ian, intending to ride to the Alston control and take a sleep break. About ten kilometers down the road I had a sense of apprehension and stopped to check my handlebar bag where I stored my brevet card. It was missing and I realized that I had left it in Canonbie. I said goodbye to Ian and turned around. Back in Canonbie I found the card in its plastic bag on the registration table. I knew that I would only have forgotten the card if I were completely exhausted, so I took a three-hour sleep break, then left again for Alston early Tuesday morning. Ian was just leaving Alston as I arrived. I had a wonderful breakfast at the control, a youth hostel, and started off again. Back in the most remote part of the Pennine Hills, I joined a group of Belgians and rode with them for several hours. One of them looked a lot like Woody. He was fairly fluent in English and my French filled in most of the linguistic gaps. He said he rode about 22,000 km a year and traveled to the Ivory Coast each spring to work with a charity for the blind.
After 26 kilometers I stopped at the youth hostel at Langdon Beck to look at the scenery and enjoy their refreshments. After a greeting by the hostel cat, I enjoyed a cup of tea and caught up on the world news from the newspapers in their dining room. At this point the ride was taking its toll even on the control volunteers. At Eppleby (954 km) I walked up to the registration table and found the volunteer who was signing the brevet cards sound asleep. Heading south, I was out of the hills and began to pick up my riding pace. I caught up to and joined a group of riders whom I knew. Later we were passed by a group of Japanese and English riders, and latched on to their pace line for the ride back to Thorne. Night was falling, and I was the only rider with a helmet light or much of an idea where we were heading, so I lead the group through the city streets the last few kilometers into the Thorne rugby club control. Pride goeth before a fall, and this was the last point in the ride where I felt confident in my navigation.
After a short break in Thorne, I was still full of energy, so I set off by myself after midnight through the deserted fens. At daybreak on Wednesday I saw loads of small rabbits and pheasants running across the roads in front of me, and once again thought of Watership Down. I got badly lost coming back into Lincoln and took a short nap to regather my wits. Before the next control I encountered most of the riders who had started LEL in Thorne. This group included a couple riding a recumbent tandem where they sat back to back. Don't ask me how that drive train works. The Thorne riders were nearly finished with their ride, but I had several hundred kilometers to go. During the afternoon on Wednesday a steady rain began. I was briefly confused on the next section but fortunately got in with some local riders from the Cambridge area who lead the way to the next control at Gamlingay. Having ridden over 1300, or perhaps 1400km, I was getting extremely tired and sore.
At the next control I slept for an hour, then took off around midnight Thursday morning with a rider on a recumbent tricycle. This was an extremely hilly section which was difficult to navigate at night in the rain. I had to keep brushing the rain off my glasses and route sheet cover on my handlebar bag, while simultaneously working my downtube gear levers. When we stopped to look for a sign or debate some route issue my companion on the trike had no balance issues while I had to do a track stand. The riders that I had ridden with going into Thorne caught up to us and helped with the navigation. This section was all unmarked lanes on a moonless night through small villages. One of my companions had a flat. After making the repair we picked up our pace and were riding at a breakneck pace. Then I had a flat, stopping the group again. The Japanese riders and several others, including Ivo Miesen, caught us. We rode with them until one of the riders from my group swerved, knocking me down. Or perhaps I swerved into him. I will admit that there was some swerving. It took most of my remaining energy to get back up and finish off the last few kilometers of the ride. I finished within the time restrictions, with a total of 1518 kilometers on my bike computer.
Back at the Lee Valley Youth Hostel I was able to get some scrambled eggs on toast and microwaved lasagna from the ride volunteers. A hard rain began to fall. Our group lingered awhile drinking beer and discussing the ride. When I started to feel sleepy I took leave of my riding companions and found my assigned room in the hostel. I took a shower and somehow climbed into the top bunk, not an easy job, falling asleep immediately. I did not hear Woody or any of my other roommates get up and slept until 1 p.m. on Thursday.
When I awoke I was full of energy. I spent the afternoon walking around Cheshunt, and ran into Woody outside the Tesco. I spent the rest of the day catching up on entries in my journal and doing laundry. We were sharing our room with a rider from Israel who was leaving at 5 a.m. the next morning to return home. The hostel had a pay Internet terminal on which I was able to send a few e-mails while my clothes dried.
On Friday morning the same cabbie who had driven us to Cheshunt returned and brought us back to Oakley. Woody needed 20 more miles to break a total of 2000 miles ridden in July, so we planned a ride with Ken on Saturday morning.
Saturday, July 30. I took my pannier and handlebar bag off the bike for the first time in a week. I was swerving all over the road without the load that I was accustomed to. We rode with Ken around 25 km to his local bike shop, Pedal On. The shop is quite posh by South Carolina standards, including a coffee bar. Ken is a good enough customer that we were treated to cappuccinos. Woody got in his 20 miles and we started packing up the bikes for the flight home. That afternoon Barb and Ken took us to Winchester. Woody and I toured the cathedral, then treated the Robsons to dinner at the Wykeham Arms restaurant. The restaurant was in a 250 year-old building that had been part of the school at Winchester. In addition to being unable to resist books where the animals talk, I am also a sucker for the mystique of the English public schools, so I found this to be a great way to wind down our visit.
The ride was a great experience and took an enormous amount of work by the organizers. Being unfamiliar with the roads, riding on the left, and learning to read the route instructions added to the difficulty for me. On the other hand we had mostly pleasant weather and I had no serious mechanical or health problems. The volunteers and our fellow riders were very friendly, and since it was a smaller group of riders, it was a different experience from PBP. The next LEL is in 2009.