I had no previous experience cycling unsupported for any great distance but this year I entered myself into London-Edinburgh-London (LEL), the UK’s longest Audax at 1400km. Some say it’s the toughest and the 2017 DNF (did not finish) rate of 34% would back that claim up. In previous years I’ve set myself big challenges compared to my experience, returning from post pregnancy to ride my first 100 miles, entering the very hot and hilly 2015 L’Etape du Tour with no previous mountain climbing experience and last year I completed Lejog in 9 days but with full ride support it felt like a holiday compared to LEL. I hoped my strong will and determination would get me through the parts where my lack of experience might otherwise let me down.
I’d followed the Transcontinental Race (TCR) for the past 2 summers and I’d been seduced by the adventures those cyclists were having. They were incredible endurance athletes, covering huge distances through the day and night on unknown roads, sometimes in hostile places and most if not all athletes also had day jobs, this really inspired me. I had dreams and ambitions of riding my bike further, putting packs on my bike and going off on solo adventures but my experience of doing this was zero. Taking part in TCR seemed like a step too far for me, I’m not a racer, I’m a single mother with considerable responsibilities but LEL offered me an opportunity to do something similar, with the same spirit of adventure, a good level of difficulty but with some sense of safety and support. The seed was planted but I was still not fully committed to signing up.
In January I spent a week in Girona with The Adventure Syndicate on their adventure racing training camp. Organised by TCR 2016 winner Emily Chappell, we spent the week surrounded by like-minded women, being led by Emily, learning from her vast experience of riding unsupported. I met other women that were signed up for LEL and it was a good opportunity to compare myself to them. I met women with TCR places, I met women riding road bikes for the very first time. The atmosphere was incredibly inspirational and motivational, I came home buzzing and the following weekend LEL went on sale. LEL is a Grand Randonee and only takes place every 4 years, it was as if my destiny had been written for me.
I spent the winter on my Wahoo Kickr, training indoors as I always do. It’s a routine I have come to love, I build up my fitness doing hard interval sessions so I can enjoy the time cycling outdoors when I have the opportunity. I get up early, I train while Savannah (my 4yr old daughter) still sleeps. It’s hard in the winter, to drag myself out of bed when it’s dark but once I’m on my bike and the music is pumping in my headphones my bed is quickly forgotten. I did intend to ride further than 220km before LEL but unfortunately, those longer rides didn’t go to plan and the training time ran out. I learned during my training that preparation for longer rides (especially if you plan to ride at night) takes a lot more time and consideration than the average rides I had done before. A beautiful 150km ride to Whitstable was perfect during daylight hours but reversing it on ridewithgps didn’t make it a rideable 300km, I only learned this as I cycled along and failed to find a 24hr petrol station, a place to buy food or drink for the return leg so we bailed for safety and took the train back to London.
I agonised over my LEL steed for months, I considered buying something new but I was already making a considerable investment into the event. The new equipment, kit, food, travel to training rides very quickly adds up and my bank balance was being drained each month. I loved riding my Condor Baracchi over the 9 days of Lejog and we have plenty of history together so eventually, after lengthy conversations and lots of advice from Condor I decided this was my bike for this adventure. Condor fitted a Schmidt SON Deluxe dynamo to a H Plus Son Rim so I could power lights and charge on the go with an Igaro USB charger. We settled on the Schmidt Edelux II High Power LED light because it had a superior beam over lower rolling speeds. When it came to bike luggage my small 49cm frame limited my choices but I enjoyed riding with the Apidura saddle pack, top tube pack and feed pack.
When it was time to stand on the start line for LEL I had mixed feelings of excitement and nerves. I felt fit, I had amassed 8000km of training so far this year, I had ridden with my packs on every training ride to get used to the feeling of how my bike handled but LEL was my very first Audax.
Day 1 Loughton – Louth
Distance covered: 243.75km
Moving time: 09:20:43
Stopped time: 01:44:22
Average speed: 26.1 kmph
I’d mapped out a daily plan for myself, originally aiming for Pocklington on day 1 but as the event drew closer it dawned on me this would be too ambitious with a 13:30 start time. I assumed most riders ahead of me would be aiming for the same control so I adjusted my plans and aimed for Louth at 242km hoping I might get lucky and get a bed there instead.
I’d previously ridden the section from Loughton to St Ives as part of my training, it was the day I clocked up 220km. My boyfriend and I followed the route North and then South crossing over to Cambridge once we reached St Ives. It was comforting to feel that familiarity as I set off on this ginormous adventure, knowing the roads ahead for the first few hours, helped me settle in. About 40km from St Ives I was running low on water, it was a warm day but I knew there was a petrol station coming up so I made a quick stop to refill. I’d built 10-20-minute stops into my plan between controls for comfort breaks and water, I drink a lot and I knew managing my off bike time was just as important as managing my riding time if I wanted to be successful. We had learned the importance of this during the training camp which included a timed race around a supermarket.
As I set off again I noticed a familiar rider, we had spoken in the food queue at Loughton, he recognised my pink socks. It was David, he was also riding a Condor and we quickly established we were quite well matched for pace so we stuck together for the ride into St Ives. As we approached St Ives I knew my family would be waiting, they moor their river boat here and had a cheering point for my impending arrival. I originally told them I wouldn’t stop due to fear of time slipping away but knowing my 4-year-old daughter was there it was impossible not to, I said goodbye to David unsure if I’d see him again and I pulled over to have a hug with Savannah.
David and I departed St Ives together and as we cycled along we discussed our plans ahead and it became apparent we had mapped out something almost identical. David started at 13:45, his drop bags were also in Pocklington and Brampton. David had ridden quite a few Audaxes so when I told him my previous longest ride was 220km his reaction was one of shock and I expected him to ride away at the first opportunity, I thought he would drop me. We chatted away and the kms ticked by, we were also enjoying the only sustained tail-wind we would experience for the whole 5 days. I ride with an InfoCranks power meter so I was watching my output and made sure we weren’t burning ourselves out with this aid on our tail.
Spalding seemed to arrive in a flash so we treated ourselves to a nice break. The food offerings were quite limited but I was very hungry, I went for the pudding first because the savory dishes were ringing alarm bells in my head. My head was saying “no don’t have the curry” but my tummy was saying “yes you need it”, my tummy eventually won.
Louth was now in our sights so I started to push on in the hope that I could get off my bike quicker, my stomach was very unhappy. We approached a sharp incline, the sign read 10% and I attacked it as if I had fresh legs, the road was narrow, dark and littered with cyclists walking up the path. I kept pushing and could sense I was opening up a gap between myself and David, I decided to keep going and wait at the top. David was suffering the dozies, I hadn’t heard of this term before but I would hear it over and over again in the coming days. He was suffering fatigue but we were so close to Louth stopping for a roadside sleep seemed like a bad idea to me. He said he was going to have an energy gel but I knew Louth was really nearby so I offered some other food to keep him going through the final kms. We’d been traveling at quite a pace all day and made up some really good time so we took it really easy from here, we stayed together and cruised into Louth at 00:30.
Arriving at Louth we learned that all the beds were full, the control staff suggested we should eat and try again later. My stomach was in knots, I was suffering a very poorly tummy, it was either a bug or the curry I had eaten in Spalding or a combination of all the food I had eaten that day. I tried to eat and also drink as much as I could but it was really hard work. David started to fall asleep at the table so I joined the bed queue. By 02:00 I had 2 post it notes with 2-bed numbers, I excitedly woke David up with the good news and we trundled off to this giant sports hall filled with loud snores (and other noises). I found my bed already occupied so I had to go back and find a member of staff and another bed, luckily there was another bed free. We booked ourselves a 04:30 wake up, a whole 02:30 lying down time. I wasn’t ever going to call it sleep because it would be too distressing and negative if I didn’t get to sleep. Before the event and in my mind I planned it as off bike time, it was a lie-down and if I managed more it was better than I’d planned. I used to have a boss that always dressed up and looked her best when she had a hangover, I was thinking in the same way.
As expected my stomach problem, the adrenalin pumping around my body and my first-day nerves added up to no actual sleep. I pulled on the damp kit of yesterday and dreamed of my fresh kit and a shower 100km up the road in Pocklington. I applied a fresh application of Muc-Off chamois cream, the scent reminds me of holidays, this lifted my mood and soothed my skin. We had porridge for breakfast but I refused the offer of coffee, I was trying to limit my caffeine intake because any opportunity to sleep would be banished with caffeine in my system, caffeine was reserved for emergencies only.
As we pulled out of Louth my legs felt dead but David shot off out of the control like a spring lamb, the distance between us was immediately noticeable, he was dropping me on all the climbs. I knew I had to maintain my own pace, this was only day 2 and if I tried to stay with him at this pace I was fried.
I’ve taken on a number of cycling challenges this year to help raise money for Ambitious About Autism, if you’d like to make a donation you can here thank you