London-Edinburgh-London 2005

When you're exhausted from jet-lag, when you've been in a fast paceline for the better part of 120 miles, when the rhythmic up-down motion of shaved legs in front of you begins to have a hypnotic effect, nothing wakes you up quite like slamming into a parked car.

We were in Caythorpe Village, I think, though I don't quite remember. It could have been any one of several improbably named little towns in Lincolnshire---Ingoldsby, Ropsley, Carleton Scroop---a blur of cottages and church steeples and hedge-lined country lanes in an ocean of wheat. I had missed a shift, and my chain had fallen off the small chainring. I reached down to fix the problem while riders passed me. The maneuver took longer than expected; I was still looking down and fiddling with the chain when someone called out sharply. I glanced up to see the red car parked in front me, my left hand grasped the brake lever, the front wheel hit the car and swung left, the rear wheel lifted slightly into the air, my right foot unclipped from the pedal and my shin smacked the bumper. It was all far gentler than I had reason to hope. I was ok, and so was the bike. Glen Slater and Bryan Johnson waited for me, and together we gave chase to Mr. Cambridge, rider 281. At least now I was fully awake.

I was in England for London-Edinburgh-London (LEL), the premier long-distance cycling event organized by Audax UK, the British randonneuring organization. LEL is a 1400Km ride from Cheshunt, a northern suburb of London, to Dalkeith, a southern suburb of Edinburgh, and back. The route heads more or less directly north from London to Yorkshire, cuts northwest across the Pennines to northern Cumbria, then leaves England and climbs over Scotland's Southern Uplands to Edinburgh. The way back retraces the outbound route. There is also an alternate start at Thorne, about 300Km north of London. Thorne starters use the same roads as London starters, but they trace a kind of figure-eight, first north to Dalkeith and back to Thorne, then south to London and again back to Thorne. The Thorne start is convenient for locals, and it distributes cyclists more evenly along the route.

LEL was first organized in 1989 by one Bernard Mawson, and it has been held every four years since then. The first edition had only 14 riders. This year's field was over 300 strong, with participants from as faw away as South Africa, Australia, and Japan, not to mention North America and most of Europe.

The day before

The start was set for 8am on Saturday, July 23. Work kept me in Boston until Thursday. Around 2pm I cycled to Logan Airport via Somerville and Chelsea. In addition to the Carradice saddle bag that I would use during LEL, I carried a messenger bag with extra clothes, some books, and my bike packing kit: a large plastic tarp, adhesive tape, and foam pipe insulation cut to fit the tubes of my Rivendell Rambouillet's frame. At the airport I removed pedals and lights, taped the rear derailleur to the inside of the chainstay, turned the handlebars sideways, covered all the tubes with insulation, and wrapped everything in the tarp. The wheels stayed on, and the tires remained inflated at 120psi. No complaints from American Airlines.

The plane landed in London on Friday morning, 25 hours before the start. There was no time to adjust to the new timezone, but it wouldn't matter much in an event where I planned to sleep little more than four hours a night. I took a train from Heathrow to Paddington Station in central London, then cycled to Liverpool Street station to catch a train to Cheshunt.

Outside Paddington, the pavement at the pedestrian crossing read "LOOK RIGHT." I took a deep breath and headed into my first English roundabout, traffic streaming in from the right. London has many more cyclists than any American city, but they are not pampered and protected as they are in Holland or Scandinavia. Bike paths are narrow, and cars move fast. Bus drivers operate their machines with unnerving precision: I turned around at a red light to find a double-decker towering above me, its front bumper not six inches from my rear wheel. In all this chaos, a pedestrian stopped me in the street to admire my bike, a first for me. He knew about Rivendell bicycles, and about Audax and LEL. He wished me luck.

Cheshunt is minutes by train from London's Liverpool Street station, yet it's another world, far from the city's noise. To the east it is delimited by the 10,000-acre Lee Valley Park. Audax UK had taken over Lee Valley Youth Hostel, a newly-built facility on the edge of the park. Over a hundred cyclists were housed, six to a room, in five large Scandinavian-style houses, two floors' worth of immaculate white-washed walls and pale hardwood surfaces, topped by sloped roofs that reminded me of Norwegian stave churches.

Mid-morning I walked back to the train station to meet my friend Hans Liemke. He'd flown to London from Germany for the weekend, and stopped by to say hello before the start. We hadn't seen each other in over a year, since last year's tour of the Swiss Alps. I exercised my rusty college German while he talked with some of his compatriots here for the ride. Their bicycles embodied my stereotypes of German machinery: immaculate paint jobs, exotic materials, halogen lamps mounted directly at the hub to avoid even an inch of messy wiring from the obligatory Schmidt Nabendynamo.

Hans and I sat around and talked until mid-afternoon. He seemed amused by all the color and fuss: everywhere manly men in tight shorts, Dutch people in team cars covered with sponsors' logos, Germans fine-tuning their dream machines, Italians with a wrench in one hand and a cell phone in the other. He smiled: "Another Max-adventure begins now."

It was 4:30pm, time for a ride. Bryan headed south to his hotel, while Glen and I and two other riders explored the first 15 kilometers of the course. My bike handled well, and the route followed mostly quiet roads through pastoral scenery. But I was surprised by the hills: the first couple hundred miles of LEL were supposed to be dead flat. If this was dead flat, the so-called "lumpy bits" in the Pennines and Scotland would be trouble.

In the evening we gathered in the cafeteria for a pasta feast. I smiled as the 19 Italians-from-Italy received their portions of overcooked pasta with roasted veggies, their faces registering varying degrees of horror. The food was healthy and tasted fine, but probably wasn't what they were used to at home. They all knew each other from the Italian brevet series. I talked with some of them, but never made it into their clique. I was the twentieth Italian, the no-longer-quite-authentic Bostonian Italian, ok with overcooked pasta.

I slept fitfully that night. I shared my room with a Russian, serious and silent, and with four Belgians. When awake, they made an effort not to disturb us by talking in loud, hoarse whispers. When asleep, they snored. They breathed at different rates, snored at different pitches, their combined efforts alternately soaring to a unified crescendo and falling away again in a multipartite rumble. I turned, I sweated, I analyzed their snoring patterns. By 6am it was time to get up for the big ride.

Day 1 (383Km, 1613m climbing)

Over an ample breakfast of cereal and eggs and beans on toast, I met Simon Doughty, the man in charge of this year's LEL. He recognized my name because Kara, my wife, would be volunteering at the Eppleby control. He's a friendly and energetic man. We talked briefly before he ran off to wake my still-sleeping Russian roommate.

Riders departed in small waves, every fifteen minutes from 8am to 9am, according to bib number. Each rider's designated start time would be factored into their final ride time. Glen and Bryan were officially part of the 9am group, while I was scheduled for 8:45am, but Rocco Richardson, the Lee Valley checkpoint coordinator, agreed that fifteen minutes didn't matter one way or another. So our little Boston contingent departed together in the 8:45 group, to scattered applause from a handful of locals.

For a mile, maybe, the pace was moderate. Then I found myself at the front of the group on the first climb. Derailleurs clattered behind me, there were a few grunts, the gentle hiss of rubber on moist pavement. I downshifted once, wrapped my fingers loosely around the flats, and breathed smooth and easy---thirty kilometers per hour up Holy Cross Hill, the chattering metal snake still pushing behind me. After a few miles Bryan came to the front, and we really went gangbusters. Only later did I learn that he holds the course record for Quadzilla, or I may not have tried so hard to chase him. My computer read 51Km/h on the flats in Brickendon. On a sharp climb in Hertford he put maybe fifty yards into me with no apparent effort, while the rest of the group fell away behind us. We passed people from the earlier starts.

Beyond Hertford we headed for a place called Stonyhills. I thought of my friend Chip's dad, and how he might prefer a diversion towards, say, Lushdales. I guess we were taking the road less traveled. We slowed to a more sustainable pace. The short stiff climbs near the start gave way to gentler rollers. The hedges ended also, affording views of undulating fields lined by rows of trees and dotted with occasional farmhouses.

We joined a group with two Italians, a tall and silent man called Damiano, and a shorter and more sociable one who introduced himself as Gigi. Gigi carried all his gear in a pack on his back, a strange contrast to his otherwise racerish outfit. He rode an all-carbon bike and wore aero shoe covers with a flame design on them, a kind of latter-day Mercury with winged sandals on fire. The fork logo read "Aero-Stiletto." In my mind he immediately became "Gigi Stiletto," perhaps an uncharitable nickname for a strong and friendly rider. I tried to restrain a smile.

I also couldn't help but notice a man in a bright red-and-white "Audax Danemark PBP 2003" jersey. He was broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, legs like tree trunks, a shock of blond hair above a ruddy face that broke frequently into a likable smile. He pushed the big chainring and a small cog, never rose from the saddle, and appeared to have no use for his shifters. He pulled us all into the Gamlingay control like some unstoppable force of nature. His name was Finn Olesen. A Dane called Finn could be a Joseph Heller character, but our Finn was quite real. I would soon come to admire his strength and generosity.

We did not stay long at Gamlingay. We left as a big group, including the three of us from Boston, Finn and his Danish friend Morten Kjærsgaard, the Italians, and a handful of Dutchmen whom I nicknamed the "backpackers" because they shared Gigi's penchant for carbon frames and bulky backpacks. We also joined up with John, an English friend of Glen's. The pace was set by rider 281, a man in a Cambridge Cycling Club kit. I hung onto his wheel for a long time, ready to take my turn at the front, but that never happened. Pushing 36Km/h on the false flats and gentle rises, I was beyond my comfort zone, afraid that I would pay for this pace in the 1250Km that lay ahead. I fell to the back of the line to get a better draft. A paceline rotation formed behind Mr.Cambridge, who never gave up his spot at the front. Slowly he pulled away from us, and stayed a few hundred meters ahead, yet always visible on the long straightaways of northern Cambridgeshire. No one wanted to go catch him. We arrived in Thurlby a breathless and much-diminished bunch. John, the Italians, and a few other riders had dropped off the back somewhere, and I hadn't even noticed.

Thurlby was a wonderful checkpoint. The main rest area occupied a brightly lit hall with big windows. LEL-themed drawings created by local schoolchildren hung on one wall, a multicolored collage of stick figures on bicycles and road signs pointing to Edinburgh. I thought it was fantastic that little kids had become involved in a cycling event like this. Hot food---pasta, rice, soups, curries---came from an adjacent kitchen, and a massive buffet occupied almost two sides of the room. There were breads, cheeses and cold cuts, quiches, fruit, drinks, and a vast assortment of desserts. We ate and rested.

Save for my encounter with the parked car, the road to Lincoln presented little difficulty. Rolling countryside and hilltop hamlets gave way to flat farmland, rectangular fields delimited by irrigation canals and rows of trees. The scenery reminded me of the River Po plains in northern Italy, with their acres of maize and rice and the rows of poplars converging at infinity. I met Sean Quigly, a friendly man from Devon in southwestern England, who looked pretty fast on his Ferrari-red carbon Trek. We were still in a sizable group, maybe a dozen riders, but all of us had given up on rider 281, so the pace was brisk but sane.

In Lincoln I was introduced to the restorative powers of rice pudding. It is refreshing, nutritious, and calms an upset stomach. Every long-distance ride should feature rice pudding. Meanwhile, Morten worked his cellphone keypad. Between one text message and another, we learned of Michael Rasmussen's harrowing Tour de France time trial, with its multiple crashes and bike replacements, and of his consequent fall from third to seventh on GC. The two Danes seemed depressed by their countryman's downfall. There was little need to ask who had won: Lance Armstrong ended his career on a high note, as expected. It reminded me of 1999, when I cycled in Scandinavia and learned of Armstrong's first Tour victories from Norwegian sportscasters.

We rode 65 kilometers north to Thorne, in southern Yorkshire, and the biggest climb the whole way was a bridge over a canal. This was the one completely flat leg of the route, a welcome break before the tough climbing ahead. The sky was hazy and streaked with clouds, and as the sun sank westward it lit the air with pastel pinks. Patches of development broke up the rural landscape: warehouses and chainlink fences and trucks heading into industrial parks. White cumuli rose from the cooling towers of a nuclear power station.

Thorne was another lovely control, with friendly staff and an assortment of warm food. But we didn't stay long: soon it would be dark, and over 80Km still separated us from Hovingham, where we planned to sleep for a few hours. As dusk fell, it became clear that many in our group weren't suitably equipped for night navigation. I did have a headlamp, but its strap was frayed, and I expected it to fall off my helmet and onto my nose or around my neck just when I needed it most. So Bryan, with his solid gear and good night vision, became the team navigator.

Darkness coincided with the Howardian hills of northern Yorkshire. We climbed hedge-lined lanes, claustrophobic tunnels of thick foliage lit only by our headlights. Sand covered the pavement in places. Our progress slowed as we stopped repeatedly to study the cue sheet. A winding climb brought us to a wooded hilltop with a large stone monument, then rollers strung out our group. Bryan's taillight danced far ahead, while a couple of Dutch backpackers panted behind me. I felt tired now, a little unsafe on the fast descents and struggling to keep Bryan's pace on the climbs. A massive gate emerged from the darkness: we were in Castle Howard, an 18th century mansion among the grandest in all of Britain. More rollers, then a huge marble obelisk rising incongruously from the woods around us---was I hallucinating?---then more rollers, and finally a steep descent that ended at a T. Brakes hissed; we regrouped. Two miles to Hovingham.

It felt good to stop in Hovingham. We had completed essentially a 15-hour 400K brevet, averaging just under 19mph on the bike. I had a simple plan: eat, wash, sleep. But by the time I finished my food, the line for the shower was gargantuan. I headed for the men's restroom, hoping to at least wash my face, and soon learned that my problem was not so much a lack of showers as a lack of imagination. Other men who, like me, did not want to wait for the showers, stood naked in the middle of the bathroom. They shared a single faucet and simply bathed right there, with no drain. A huge puddle covered the floor, and dirty bike shorts and socks lay here and there. The place stank of sweat and urine. I made the best of a bad situation and "went animal" myself, bathing at the faucet.

Sometimes the end justifies the means. I left the bathroom feeling clean and refreshed, a new man. A volunteer handed me a fleece blanket and directed me to a sleeping mat on the stage at the back of the community hall. I just remember lying down and relishing the sensation of the soft fleece on my legs. I fell asleep immediately.

Day 2 (374Km, 3667m climbing)

I awoke at 4am to the hammering of cycling cleats on wood: the crowd from the 3:30am wake-up call was leaving. Many more cyclists had arrived overnight, and the control had apparently run out of blankets. People were asleep on chairs, under tables, and in the middle of the floor. They slept the sleep of the dead, undisturbed by noise or people tripping over them. I wanted to leave this grim, dimly lit place. I packed my gear, threw down toast, eggs, and cereal, and headed for the door.

There were six of us now: Finn and Morten from Denmark, Sean from England, and Bryan, Glen, and myself from Boston. The air was cool but humid. Mist enveloped the hollows outside Hovingham, and sheep wandered in the clearings between stately old trees. We climbed steeply through thick forest before emerging into more open countryside. Small woods alternated with fields and lakes. The scale of things somehow seemed smaller than yesterday, the fields closer together, the roads even less busy. We rode well together, sometimes in a paceline, sometimes more sociably, two or three abreast. As the miles wore on I spent more and more time at the front, eager to see Kara at the Eppleby control.

We reached Eppleby before 8am, to enthusiastic welcome from Kara and the other volunteers. The control had a wood floor and required that one take one's shoes off; it felt good to walk barefoot and wiggle my toes. The place was airy and almost empty, a welcome change after Hovingham. We sat back for a few minutes and enjoyed our second breakfast. In my heart of hearts I rather hoped for some special treatment, a little extra something, but Kara was impeccably professional and catered to the others no less than to me. My only bonus was a goodbye kiss.

The Alston leg had been my bogey for the past day, but in the end it proved to be doable enough. Gentle rollers alternated with short stiff climbs for 40Km to the optional control at Langdon Beck. We did not stop there, but continued climbing for several miles to the summit of Yad Moss. The climb was more gradual than I had imagined, and very beautiful. The road hugged the side of the hills, dipping in and out of view ahead of us. Rugged moors rose to our right, while a patchwork of fields stretched across a broad valley to our left. It all felt alpine---there was hardly a tree in sight, and 6-foot snow poles stood as proof that this place gets its share of winter weather.

As the climb continued, Bryan rode ahead of us, and Morten and Finn fell off the back. A few minutes later Finn came charging back with the news that Morten would rejoin us at the top, and he and my other companions took off at breakneck speed. I kept a more moderate pace, mindful of the many miles ahead. Still, before the summit I passed Richard Leon, a strong French cyclist. Either he was taking it easy, or I was starting out way too fast.

Morten showed up at the top of Yad Moss just as the rest of us were taking the obligatory group summit photos. Together, we plunged down the other side. The descent was a gas, long and fast, interrupted only by a couple of short climbs. I had forgotten about the final half-mile 18% descent on cobblestones through the center Alston, but I remembered soon enough when we hit the wet cobbles going 60Km/h. Somehow I managed to stay upright, and after a numbing vibra-massage we ducked left off the main road and into the Alston Youth Hostel.

Refueled with beans on toast, rice pudding, and fruit salad, we continued on through Northumberland and Cumbria, England's northernmost counties. For the first time we encountered cyclists going the other way, Thorne starters on their way back from Edinburgh. This leg was unexpectedly tough. When the rollers stopped, a strong headwind took their place. Morten couldn't hold our pace on the climbs, and eventually, with some regret, we decided to split up. Beyond Brampton we had two route options: hilly and quiet, or flatter and busy. We chose traffic over hills, but hadn't accounted for the wind. The map claims that we crossed Hadrian's Wall at one point, but all I remember is swaying grass and an empty feeling in my legs. I must thank Glen and Sean for giving me some well-timed pulls that allowed me to stick with them.

A sign welcomed us to Scotland, and soon the Canonbie checkpoint appeared on our right. The community hall was semi-deserted; we enjoyed a late lunch more or less in silence. We waited long enough to see Morten come in, but he needed a rest, so we decided to continue without him.

From Canonbie to Dalkeith is a mere 119Km, yet the terrain is such that the organizers added an intermediate control in Ettrick, 53Km north of Canonbie. Steep rollers took us to Langholm, where we began the first of several long, grinding climbs through increasingly rugged terrain. Sean, a birdwatcher, went on excitedly about seeing an osprey. Near Eskdalemuir we passed a Tibetan Buddhist temple. I had read about it in Kent Peterson's report of LEL 2001, but to see it in real life, with its swooping roofs and gilded spires and fluttering prayer flags, was bizarre in the extreme.

We all stopped at the top of the longer climbs to regroup and admire the views. Bryan was the strongest among us, while Sean and I sometimes struggled to stay in contact. I was relieved to reach Ettrick, a town so small and secluded that we would have missed it entirely but for a prominent LEL sign that indicated the turn-off from the main road. We stayed at the control only long enough to have some soup and sandwiches before heading north.

We scaled three major ridges, the first still sparsely wooded, the other two completely bare. On the second climb, north of Mountbenger, low clouds cut off our views and gave our surroundings an authentic high-alpine feel. But we left the overcast behind us as we rolled over the mountain and down into Innerleithen, past an incongruous golf course, and up to the final big climb before Edinburgh. It was late afternoon, and the sun bathed the moors in a magical orange light. We all stopped to take photos. Glen and Bryan sprinted repeatedly for King of the Mountain points, but their efforts were largely squandered on false summits.

Shortly after the real summit, the road veered right to reveal expansive views of Edinburgh and the North Sea in the distance. We stopped once more to admire this beautiful, windswept landscape. A dozen miles---all downhill and interrupted only by a few intersections---separated us from Dalkeith. We arrived at the control at dusk, exhilarated both by the long descent and by the thought of having completed half of LEL.

Sean favored taking a nap in Dalkeith, Bryan strongly wanted us to continue, and Glen, Finn, and I were more or less undecided. Ultimately we decided that the Gordon Arms Hotel, a few miles north of Ettrick, would be a good place to sleep. One problem: we did not have access to a phone book. So Sean called his wife in Devon, and from a thousand kilometers away she made arrangements for us to sleep at a hotel that was two hours up the road. The wonders of modern technology.

I filled up on macaroni with cheese, bread and butter, and fruit, and was ready to start the return trip to London. The long descent from the Moorfoot Hills was now a long climb, but darkness hid the mountains from view and kept us focused on the pavement ahead. We made surprisingly good time. From the sharp turn where we had stopped to admire Edinburgh at sunset, we now saw the city's lights on the edge of the dark sea, and a pale moon low on the horizon.

The hills seemed less steep from the north, but Bryan set a pace that made them not exactly easy. My most vivid memories are of the day's last climb, south out of Innerleithen. We had just finished the 10-kilometer descent from the Moorfoot Hills, and we were all wearing windbreakers. The road pitched upwards steeply. I saw car lights far above us and thought, "It can't be that steep for long." So I kept my jacket on, expecting to take it off when the road flattened out. And flatten out it did, but only after five kilometers. For five kilometers I thought, "It must end just beyond that rise," while my feet spun wildly in a 36x24 and sweat soaked the inside of my jacket. For five kilometers I envied the riders going the other way, points of light that bore down on us from above and flashed by in a whir of freewheels. For five kilometers Bryan's rear wheel danced in my headlights and Finn pushed his huge gears beside me. Finn's pedals, which had been squeaking for hundreds of miles, made increasingly alarming noises. Finally we stopped at the top, in near complete darkness. I asked Bryan whether that had hurt at all, and he answered no. I sat quietly and considered my own weakness. Eventually a bobbing light in the distance announced Sean's arrival, and we continued together down the mountain to the Gordon Arms.

It was past midnight when we arrived, and everyone there was asleep except for a loud dog. We discovered an open side door that led to showers and an attic full of bunks and sleeping bags that had been set up for us. The accommodation was simple, but I could not have been happier with a five-star hotel. I was asleep by 1am.

Day 3 (358Km, 2593m climbing)

The alarm rang at 5am. More or less disoriented, we trundled down the metal stairs into the moist, hazy dawn. There was a bit of confusion as we searched for Bryan's wallet, but it was nowhere to be found---maybe he had left it at Dalkeith. So we hit the road to Ettrick, eager for breakfast.

We arrived at the control at 6:15am, having endured a long climb on an empty stomach. I fantasized about scrambled eggs and beans on toast, but reality was bleak: potato chips ("crisps" in British English) and jelly beans. It was my only disappointment with the organization of LEL, but it came at a bad time. We were baffled by the difference between this and all the previous controls, and I dug into my ration of Power Bars to carry me through to a real breakfast in Canonbie.

Back on the road, we passed many northbound London starters, including Bob, the man whose home-built bicycle was such a hit at last year's Boston-Montreal-Boston. Yesterday's grinding climbs were now breezy descents, and we coasted past the Tibetan temple at a good clip. But it's funny how the hills get steeper as you get tired. The rollers between Langholm and Canonbie, which had almost faded from memory, now presented real challenges. I somehow managed to stick within a few yards of Bryan, while the rest of our group trailed behind on the steep bits.

In Canonbie we saw the last northbound London starter, a woman on a small orange Rambouillet, and Bryan was reunited with his wallet, which had been found at Dalkeith and brought south by one of the LEL motorcycle marshals. Best of all, we had a breakfast fit for a king, an extravagant affair with eggs and buttered toast and cereal and fruit. All that food served me well on the forty-mile leg to Alston. Unlike yesterday, when I struggled behind Glen and Sean, now I felt strong and confident.

Sean had left Canonbie before us to allow himself a more mellow pace for a few miles. We caught up with him in Brampton, just as he was getting up from a micro-nap in a town park. Together we made quick work of the remaining twenty miles to Alston. The details blur together, but I have pleasant memories of winding roads and a general feeling of speed and well-being on the bike. We raced past a couple of heavily loaded bicycle tourists, and I hoped that they thought we were just a group of locals out for a joy ride.

We spent longer than usual at the Alston Youth Hostel: we were about to leave, after a typically delicious meal, when Finn discovered that his rear wheel's sidewall was damaged. A pit crew of enthusiastic volunteers materialized around him instantly. Sean decided to get a head start up Yad Moss, while Glen, Bryan, and I returned indoors to take shelter from the light drizzle.

Wet cobbles on an 18% grade were much more pleasant to climb at 10Km/h than they had been to descend at 60Km/h. Despite that, Finn and Glen both decided to walk, and Brian and I waited for them at a scenic spot a mile or two up the road. All together again, we had not gone far when Bryan's rear tube went flat with a loud bang. All these stops were making Yad Moss almost too easy, so it felt good to open up the throttle in the last few miles of the climb. The road near the top looked like an alpine stage of the Tour or Giro---bare landscape, lots of turns, snow poles every few yards---yet the grade was gentle, so the stripes on the pavement passed beneath us at the rate that they might for pros on the much steeper real alpine roads. Dreamy and sleep deprived, I concentrated on a round pedal stroke and indulged all my pro racer fantasies.

We caught up with Sean, who was not having a great day on account of sore tendons and general exhaustion. He encouraged us to go ahead without him, but none of us wanted to do that after so many miles together. And Sean still had some strong pedaling in him. In Barnard Castle---actually a town, not a castle---I sprinted ahead of everyone up the steep, congested main street, and looked back to see Sean hanging on right behind me. A few hundred meters earlier we had passed a couple on city bicycles, the man had begun to chase us, and Sean had wanted to make extra sure that no casual tourist would pass any of us. Team pride, man.

The Bowes Museum, a magnificent French-style chateau purpose-built as an exposition center in the late 19th century, provided an excuse for a breather and a group photo. A few miles later, we left numbered roads in favor of narrow, unnamed lanes. We hardly saw another car in the remaining miles to Eppleby.

Kara welcomed us into the Eppleby control at 4:30pm. The fastest rider, we learned, had been through there at 2am, over 14 hours ahead of us. Ouch. But it's not a race, I thought, as I sat back to enjoy a quiche that I would later come to call the Quiche of Death. This time I spent more time talking with Kara than I had on the northbound leg, and all my companions were astride their bikes and ready to go while the contents of my saddlebag still littered the pavement. Eventually, despite my clumsiness, we were off on the 80Km leg to Hovingham.

Bryan and Finn set a brisk pace. We passed several solo riders so quickly that I didn't even register their faces. One cyclist, a Frenchman, managed to latch onto the paceline and stayed with us long enough to make small talk and comment on our pace. A few miles later, though, I turned around and again there were only five of us.

But long distance cycling, unfortunately for me, is a test of digestive systems at least as much as one of legs or lungs. We were near the 1000-kilometer mark when bitter aftertastes of the Quiche of Death first rose from my gut. I wasn't too suprised: similar stomach acid problems plagued me at about the same distance during last year's BMB, when for a 100 miles I could taste the fried rice I had eaten in Brattleboro. But this time the Quiche of Death felt altogether more potent, and we had 400---not 200---kilometers left to go.

I chewed Tums on a regular schedule, my companions slowed down a little on the steeper stretches, and the scenery distracted me from my gut troubles. We arrived in Hovingham at sunset, the massive old trees and sheep-speckled hollows outside town bathed in a rich orange glow. The others all had pasta with tomato sauce, but I limited myself to milk and cereal, in the hope that it would neutralize my stomach acid.

We left Hovingham in the company of a Dutch rider, Joop Van Beek, who did not want to ride alone through the darkness. The sky was almost black by the time we reached Castle Howard, and the obelisk rose ahead of us as beautiful and mysterious as on our way north. A few days later, at the Tate Britain museum in London, I would see prints from wood engravings by William Blake, illustrations to Robert Thornton's 19th century "The Pastorals of Virgil." Those intense, otherworldy illustrations of mostly nocturnal rural scenes reminded me of nothing so much as of the moonlit grounds of Castle Howard.

South of the Howardian hills my stomach problems gradually worsened. I entered a kind of mental tunnel, focused only on saving energy and staying with the group. Bryan and Finn, I believe, mostly led the way. My only distinct memory of the course is a railway crossing where we waited several minutes. When the train finally passed, we noticed that the barriers were operated manually, via a kind of big wheel similar to a ship's rudder, by a man in a nearby building. I thought of my friend Chip, one who would skip a randonnee to attend a conference of railway buffs.

I somehow consoled myself that I was not the only one having trouble. Joop weaved perilously from side to side, his head lower and lower between his shoulders. And Glen had trouble with alertness also, even though Bryan tried to keep him awake with dirty jokes. When we stopped in a small town to study the cue sheet, Glen fell over at a standstill, unable to unclip from his shoes in time. A little later we stopped at a gas station, where Sean recommended a brand of antacids for me, and most of the others had hot coffee.

When we reached the control at the Thorne Rugby Club, at 2am, Bryan was the only one in good enough shape to continue. He ate with us and took off into the night. We wouldn't see him until London. A helpful volunteer and former professional nurse offered me more antacids, even stronger than Sean's recommended brand. She also showed us our sleeping quarters, brought fresh towels for the shower, and, incredibly, offered to launder and dry my shorts overnight. I was surprised---I had never seen service remotely like this at any cycling event---not to mention a little embarrassed to be giving someone my sweaty shorts to wash. She dismissed my hesitation with a, "No worries, I'm married to a cyclist."

Day 4 (302Km, 1484m climbing)

We slept for two and a half hours, until 5am, ate a quick breakfast, and said goodbye to the fabulous Thorne staff. The misty plains glowed in early morning light. Sleep and clean shorts made me optimistic about the upcoming day. But the well-being proved short-lived: my stomach was still hard and swollen, and I felt nauseous and weak.

Finn, Sean, and Glen shared the work at the front, while Joop and I pulled up the rear. Something inside me screamed to stop, to give up, to just lie on the ground and throw up and sleep. I tried to slow down so the others would leave me, but they would slow down also, and Joop would work extra hard to bring me back into contact. I waved them away. I shook my head at Joop. Still they tried to rescue me.

Only after many miles, somewhere near Dunham on Trent, when I became manifestly unable to negotiate even little climbs like bridges, did the others take off. I have only foggy memories: somehow they split up, and Glen remained with me. I was grateful for his company.

Yet as we entered Lincoln in heavy weekday traffic, my pace was too slow even for his patience. A feeling like hot flame flared suddenly in a tendon just above my left knee, and I was reduced to pedaling with my right leg only. Ladies on three-speeds carrying shopping baskets passed me. I hobbled into the Lincoln control with dark thoughts of abandonment.

Although Joop and Glen waited for me to leave the control, it was immediately clear that I would be unable to hold any kind of reasonable pace. I cycled on alone, unsure whether it made sense to continue. Several riders passed me and asked me if I was ok. I had never felt so wretched on a bicycle.

After some painful climbs, I made a counter-intuitive discovery: climbing in a high gear, out of the saddle, without bending my left leg too far, caused less tendon pain than riding seated in a low gear. At about the same time, my stomach condition began to improve, and I felt that I could again transmit power to the pedals. I wasn't breaking any speed records, but at least people weren't passing me any longer. Relieved to have the boring flatlands behind me, I once again enjoyed the views all around me. I arrived in Thurlby, 152Km from the finish, at a quarter to two, cautiously optimistic about reaching London by day's end.

I leaned my bike against a wall at the control and stared in disbelief: right in front of me, next to my Rambouillet, was Sean's bright red Trek! I checked in at the control and discovered that Glen had left less than half an hour earlier. Maybe I wasn't doing so terribly after all. Sean and Finn sat at a table in the dining hall, and Sean told me an incredible story. After a lot of creaking, one of Finn's pedals had finally snapped. At first, Finn had tried to reattach the pedal to the broken remains of the spindle. But when that approach failed, he simply took off his shoe, stuffed it into his jersey pocket, and wrapped his toes around the jagged spindle remains that still emerged from the crank. In this way, I believe, he pedaled some tens of hilly kilometers, Sean at his side, before a motorcycle marshal caught up to them with a pair of spare pedals. Blood stained his sock, but he didn't stop.

I certainly felt like no match for these two guys, so I sat at Thurlby and rested my knee, which at this point was more of a problem than my stomach. The control staff had no ibuprofen, but a fellow rider came to my rescue with four 200mg pills. I took two, and within minutes the pain lifted, like magic. I also popped some more antacids, just for old times' sake, and headed back onto the road.

I was making respectable progress on the gently undulated roads of southern Lincolnshire when I hit some cue sheet trouble. The cue said "straight on, following the sign to Helpston" at kilometer 12.8, but there was no sign. I doubled back half a mile to the last definite landmark, then forward again and left, following the main road, where the cue said to go straight. A quick call to the control confirmed that the original, non-signposted turn was the right one. But then, 2.4Km later, the cue said "straight on at intersection; no sign," yet the intersection was clearly signposted. There had been no errors in the cue sheet for almost 1300Km, and now there were two in a row. I called the control again to be safe.

Some miles later, near Wansford, I heard conversation and a derailleur chattering behind me, and looked around to see none other than Sean and Finn, again! They had not thought to call the control point, and a bad guess at one of the misleading cues had cost them almost an hour. Much as I felt sorry for them, I was also thankful for the company. I felt stronger than I had for hours, and I was determined not to be left behind this time. In fact, now it was Sean who was suffering. His Achilles' tendons were acting up again, and he had trouble on the climbs. Finn and I alternated pulls and tried to set a steady pace. The afternoon wore on in a succession of little villages and farms under a clear blue sky. The only real difficulty for me was navigating out of the twisty medieval center of St Neots.

We reached Gamlingay, the next-to-last checkpoint, at 6:44pm. Despite all our problems, less than 10% of the field was ahead of us, apparently. We sat back and stretched our legs, and Sean told the story of Finn's broken pedal to a disbelieving audience. For the first time in 24 hours, since the Quiche of Death in Eppleby, I felt that I could eat without throwing up. I was ravenous, and thankful to have regained good health.

It took us almost three hours to cover the final 65Km of LEL. We passed a couple of cyclists going our way, and encountered many heading in the opposite direction, Thorne starters on the last leg of their figure-eight itinerary. The sun cast long shadows across the rolling farmland, and we were treated to one final, glorious LEL sunset before darkness fell around us.

I have many memories of those last 65Km: the expansive scenery, the magnificent light, the feeling of achievement at having completed LEL despite the last day's troubles. Yet my best and most unbelievable memory is of Finn, in his granny gear for the first time in 1350Km, pushing Sean up the hills. Sean, his tendons swollen and ibuprofen no longer effective, was forced to soft-pedal even on gentle climbs. He told us to ride on without him, but that wasn't an option for us. I'd have been perfectly willing to ride with him at whatever pace he could muster, but Finn had a different idea. He would ride down the hills just behind Sean, then downshift, put his right hand firmly on Sean's lower back or his saddle, and push him all the way up the hill. At the top he'd accelerate his pedal stroke and finally push forward with his arm---a powerful, sweeping motion that launched Sean over the top of the hill and down the other side. And then he would repeat the procedure again. He did this time after time, on scores of hills, many of them steep and quite long. Together they climbed surprisingly fast: I could probably have outsprinted them had I needed to, but even keeping up with them was no easy task. I was in complete awe of Finn and his technique---I had never seen anything like it.

Darkness found us, for the first time, without Bryan. Sean's night vision is poor, and Finn's headlight, its battery exhausted, generated a barely visible glow, so I became the de facto navigator. Somehow my headlamp stayed on despite the frayed strap, and I didn't get us lost. But my memory of those last few miles from the outbound leg was just wrong enough to be dangerous. "No more hills after this!" I called out to Sean and Finn a few miles after Brickendon, just as we turned a corner towards Holy Cross Hill and saw lights far above us. Groans and oaths erupted behind me.

Eventually the hills did end. We coasted down the long descent that had marked that first rushing climb three and a half days earlier, and rolled together through Cheshunt and into Lee Valley Park. We arrived at the finish at 10:50pm, to a cheering welcome from Rocco and other LEL volunteers. I had covered 1417Km in 86 hours and 5 minutes, slower than I had hoped initally, but much faster than I had feared during the worst of my crisis. Glen was there to meet us also, looking clean and fresh. He had preceded us by a couple of hours. Someone handed me a beer and a bag of potato chips---excuse me, potato crisps. I clinked bottles with my riding companions, sat back, and relished the moment.


Control Distance (Km) Arrival timeNotes
Lee Valley 0 Sat 08:45
Gamlingay 65 Sat 11:00
Thurlby 152 Sat 13:56
Lincoln 223 Sat 16:48
Thorne 298 Sat 20:00
Hovingham 381 Sat 23:50 Sleep at control; restart at 4:40
Eppleby 461 Sun 07:47
Alston 530 Sun 11:16
Canonbie 588 Sun 14:03
Ettrick 641 Sun 17:25
Dalkeith 707 Sun 21:09 Sleep at Gordon Arms (km 720), 1-5am
Ettrick 773 Mon 06:15
Canonbie 826 Mon 08:55
Alston 886 Mon 12:45
Eppleby 954 Mon 16:36
Hovingham 1034 Mon 20:30
Thorne 1118 Tue 02:06 Sleep at control, 2:30-5am
Lincoln 1195 Tue n/a
Thurlby 1265 Tue 13:43
Gamlingay 1352 Tue 18:44
Lee Valley 1417 Tue 22:50
Day 1 2 3 4
Distance (km) 382.5 374.0 358.2 301.8
Vertical climb (m) 1613 3667 2593 1484
Time moving (hh:mm) 12:57 15:32 14:44 13:40
Ave. moving speed (km/h) 29.5 24.0 24.3 22.0
Max. speed (km/h) 71.7 59.5 63.2 50.7
Odometer total (km) 12666 13040 13399 13701