London – Edinburgh – London by Bike!
By Theo Robinson
It’s 1am on an unseasonably cold June night, and I’m standing with my bike outside Domino’s in Telford, pizza in one hand, pulling on every bit of dry kit I’ve got with the other. My legs are black with grime and I’ve just slogged 270km from London to Ironbridge through hours and hours of torrential rain. It’s six weeks out from the start of London-Edinburgh-London (LEL), and this wasn’t quite what I’d had in mind when I signed up.
Held once every four years, LEL is a 1,500km cycling event with a maximum time limit of 125 hours (ridden against the clock, not as a stage race). The route changes between editions, and in 2022 the route also included over 15,000m of elevation – the highest to date. Riders enter from all over the world to test themselves against it, and the DNF rate, unsurprisingly, is extremely high. Inspired by Jasmijn Muller (first woman home in 2017), I’d entered three years ago after finishing my first 200km ride – a very pleasant out-and-back to Brighton on a balmy summer day, punctuated with fish and chips and a couple of pub stops – reasoning that two years was plenty of time to train. In the meantime, the pandemic had arrived and I was struggling to recover from long Covid, having caught it in March 2020. By the following summer, I could barely manage a couple of laps of Richmond Park. But LEL was postponed by a year and, with careful management, my health improved sufficiently that, by the start of 2022, I could begin training again. I had a mountain to climb to be fit enough to get to the start line, but, with the help of Jasmijn and FoT’s Liv at Team Meraki, I’d got a training plan in place to tackle the monster that was LEL.
And so I dipped my toes into the world of audaxing, discovering that, while 200km might make for a lovely day out on the bike, going significantly above that in one go, and riding those distances on consecutive days, was a different game entirely. Bib shorts that were perfectly comfortable for 200km suddenly felt like razor blades when tackling 400km. Taking in enough calories without overloading my stomach with sugar was another (the secret: always carry a cheese sandwich). Emily Chappell’s Where There’s a Will became my bible.
LEL is unsupported and self-navigated along a set route: there are no route markings, support vehicles, or broom wagon. If you get into trouble, there’s no back-up, and, although my fellow riders were utterly lovely, you’re never guaranteed assistance. But it’s not all doom and gloom: there are several checkpoints along the route that you need to hit to prove you’ve completed the event. At these controls the organisers stamp your brevet card and there’s usually a decent range of hot food available. If they’ve commandeered a school, you can also grab a bit of kip on one of the hundreds of inflatable mattresses set up in the sports hall, which means you don’t have to carry a bivvy bag or book places to sleep.
The month before the event, I caught Covid again, but miraculously, recovered quickly this time, and against all odds actually made it to the start line. I was as prepared as I could be under the circumstances, but honestly had no idea how this going to go. Liv and I had agreed that, if all went well, I could likely make it to Edinburgh, but I knew it would probably take a minor miracle to get me back to London. I was just going to take it section by section.
I packed up my drop bags and wandered around the start area. All kinds of bikes were racked here: carbon bikes with aero bars and minimal set-ups, gleaming steel single speeds mounted with traditional carradice bags, recumbents, and even some Bromptons. The atmosphere was one of hushed anticipation as riders enjoyed a late breakfast or made final adjustments to their steeds. Despite the August heat, the large contingent of riders from India were huddled in down jackets, trying to keep warm.
Two thousand riders got ready to set off in waves over the day, fifteen minutes apart. The speediest riders, going for sub-100 hours, had set off at 5am; the final waves would be leaving late afternoon. I knew that the number of female entrants was low, but was still struck by just how few of us there were: I spotted only two or three per wave (about 12% entered overall, I was told). The only good thing about it was that, for once, we didn’t have to queue for the toilets – unlike the gents, who were grumbling about their long queues.
Surprisingly, the first 100km whipped by non-stop and all went smoothly at the checkpoints. Encouraged, I headed onwards, surviving the notoriously sapping headwind through the fens. After a good bit of night riding, I got to the Louth control at 3am, and retrieved my first drop bag. Things started to go a bit awry here. I’d planned to get a couple of hours’s shut-eye, but was so pumped with adrenaline that I couldn’t get my heart rate to drop enough to sleep. I lay there for an hour or so, but realised I was just wasting time and got back on my bike.
The sun had just risen as I went over the Humber bridge, which was an amazing sight. Over the coming day, the forecast heat wave kicked in properly. At lunchtime, I caught up with a friend who’d started a few waves earlier than me. We set off together, making it through the utterly brutal but equally beautiful section over the Yorkshire moors, but the last few hours of riding into Barnard Castle that evening were punishing. I was making OK time, but the sleep deprivation had fully kicked in and I was struggling to stay upright on my bike. We fell in with another rider and the three of us kept chatting to stay awake, helped by my glucose tablets and a 9pm emergency hot chocolate stop at a garage. The Barnard Castle checkpoint was amazing, with fantastic food, but I was completely done in and fainted after dinner. The lovely first aiders fed me some Haribo, and, sat back upright with a mug of tea in hand, my friend and I debated what to do. Neither of us felt like scratching completely, but we knew finishing was an impossibility at this point. My original plan had me up and away at 4am but I decided to be sensible and just get as much sleep as I could. It would put me out of my time limit, but I’d decide what to do about that in the morning.
I felt better after a few hours’s sleep, drifting off amidst the gentle bleeping of Garmins and Wahoos. After a quick chat with Liv in the morning, I decided I was feeling well enough to aim for Edinburgh, where I’d take the sleeper train home – I’d still feel like I’d achieved something if I could manage that. Although the northbound only checkpoints would begin closing on a rolling basis, a couple of controls where the route ran both north and southbound would still be open, including Brampton, the location of my second drop bag. My friend turned back with some other riders to form a party train following the route south and I headed northwards solo.
The roads were wide and empty and the scenery utterly stunning. Riders at the sharp end starting the return leg began to appear on the opposite side of the road, looking remarkably fresh and always with an encouraging wave! I slogged through the 20% gradients over the Pennines, which were counterbalanced by some insane descents. When the route split and I rolled onto the northbound-only section, I was properly on my own. No more cheery waves from the opposite direction! There were long sections where I barely saw a soul or even a car, but I never felt unsafe, just drinking in the amazing views. Passing the “Welcome to Scotland” sign, I began laughing hysterically at the total absurdity of what I’d just done. Heading out of Moffat, a 10km climb in searing heat meant I quickly emptied my first water bottle. Conscious that there were no shops or towns en route for the next few hours, I stopped at a house where there were some building works going on. The builders kindly refilled my bottles, gave me a fridge-cold Coke, and asked about the constant stream of cyclists that had been passing for the last couple of days. They agreed we were all quite mad and wished me luck as I pressed on.
Arriving in Edinburgh, the Fringe was in full swing and the whole city felt like a massive party. A celebratory beer and burger later, and I checked onto the sleeper train home with my bike (kudos to Caledonian Sleeper who made this super easy). Though a little sad to be pulling out, I was pretty proud of what I’d managed to accomplish (750km) and happy to have finished on a high.
LEL is without doubt an utterly epic event and if you’re interested in ultra cycling, I’d definitely recommend giving it a go. The camaraderie on the road and at the controls is fantastic. The entry fee is relatively low in comparison to a commercial event and the volunteers are exceptional (I’m sure they worked far harder than the cyclists!). As with any overnight ultra, there are a lot of factors to get right, the key one being managing the effects of sleep deprivation, but I can certainly understand why riders from Tokyo to Texas are drawn to it . . . see you in 2025?