With London-Edinburgh-London coming up in July, I thought I’d repost my long account of the 1997 LEL. This year’s route will be somewhat different—a bit less flat—and the event will be on a much larger scale, but I think this account still gives you a sense of what you can expect. I rode a recumbent trike on this LEL, although nowadays I usually ride a conventional bike on events.
Dave Lewis, an AUK legend who died last week, features in the story, dispensing bonhomie and encouragement, as always. Here he is sampling my trike:
I’m not quite sure when the idea of riding Edinburgh-London began to take hold of my imagination. But as soon as I conceived the intention of riding, it was obvious it would have to be on a recumbent. After around 600 km on a conventional bike bits of me begin going numb that I would rather didn’t… Anyhow, if you’re going to ride 1,400 km in one go, you might as well be able to enjoy the scenery without craning your neck.
After much deliberation, I ordered a Trice recumbent trike in early February. Delivery of the latest, much revised model was expected to be six weeks, so I hoped to be able to ride, or at any rate attempt, Shawn Shaw’s Wessex series on the Trice. I eventually got the trike the day before the Brimstone 600. Never mind, give it a go… With one thing and another, I only got four hours sleep that night. The Brimstone went well enough until Exmouth, at which point I was three hours up on maximum time. Admittedly, my cadence on the Hill from Hell out of Sidmouth was barely in double figures, but I rode it (it would have been harder to walk and drag the trike by the back wheel). I made excruciatingly slow progress on the lanes around Hembury Hill, and had lost considerable time by Taunton Deane services. After Taunton, quite simply, I couldn’t stay awake. I was veering into the verge and making snail-like progress. The low point came with the descent of Pedwell hill, which should have been a joyous swoop. Instead I crawled down, fearful of dozing off and crashing. I was right on maximum time when I reached the “secret” control at Tor Hole (what a surprise…), and was not thinking straight. I packed. I then proceeded by a very hilly route (no, I’m not saying what, or we might find it incorporated into one of Shawn’s rides) to Shaftesbury, where I picked up the Brimstone again and discovered that the old route’s one big hill after Shaftesbury had thoughtfully been replaced by two big hills and a mountain. Shawn is spoiling us again… After a very leisurely Sunday, I found myself back in Poole at 4 pm having covered 500 km. With nothing to show for it. Snarl.
Lessons learned: The Trice is extremely comfortable, and can generally keep up audax-type average speeds without difficulty, but is slow in the steepest terrain. Don’t panic. Don’t enter a 600 short of sleep. Follow the signposts for Cucklington, even the one that seems to be pointing in the wrong direction.
Fourteen hundred kilometres is a long way, so I was very careful in going over the Trice and checking every bolt and nut. Though the wheels were true, as an afterthought I twanged the spokes. Amid the plinks on the back wheel I discovered a couple of plunks. I tightened them with a spoke key and a sinking heart (Wheel Voodoo is not one of my special subjects). I lubed the mile and a half of chain. Twice. I retensioned the seat webbing. Half a dozen times. With the Hill from Hell all too fresh in my mind I swapped the 11-28 cassette for an 11-30. Most importantly of all according to Joseph, our 11-year-old, I zip-tied Wallace and Gromit to my rack. On a ride like E-L it’s important to have redundancy in the critical stuff like lighting systems and lucky mascots.
Over a period of a week or so the offside front tyre appeared to be losing a little pressure. Scarcely worth bothering with, really, I told myself. Then I had a vision: An inky night, somewhere in the British Isles. Rain is lashing down. I haven’t slept in 36 hours. The offside tyre is flat. Hmm, on reflection perhaps I’ll fix it now…
Good decision: I found a thorn which had entered the sidewall and slightly nicked the tube.
Ten days before the start I received the final version of the route sheet. I covered it with sticky-back plastic in best Blue Peter style, then—what’s wrong with belt and braces—traced the entire route onto pages torn out of my motoring atlas. With a week to go I began putting stuff randomly in my panniers as I thought of things to take. With a couple of days to go I picked up the panniers, blanched at the weight, and began taking stuff randomly out again. (In keeping with the new editorial policy of your fact-filled Arrivee, you’ll find an exciting list of the contents of my panniers at the end of this article. Read it—the list, the list—and weep…) With a day to go I collected the rented van and loaded trike, panniers, sleeping bag and mats, toolkit, track pump, and change of clothing. Then I lay down on the bed and tried to sleep until it was time to pick up Joseph from school.
It was around five on the Friday evening before I could set out for Thorne. After ten miles I remembered I’d meant to bring a spare front tyre for the Trice. Rain rattled against the windscreen. I remembered I’d forgotten to pack my Gore-Tex and only had a showerproof Pertex top. No point worrying now.
Thanks to Bernard Mawson’s thoughtfully provided map of Thorne, there was no problem finding the rugby club. It was just next to the fairground… By the time I arrived, despite my best efforts at nonchalance, I was definitely beginning to feel edgy. Judging from the chat in the bar, and the non-alcoholic drinks on most of the tables, including mine, I was not the only one. Pedals [Alan Pedliham] and Whitebelly [Paul Whitehead] breezed in to tell us how comfy their B and B was, and John Miller turned up in the unfamiliar guise of controller general at Thurlby. John was keen to see the Trice, so I gave him what proved to be the first of many tours of inspection over the next few days.
Alan and Leslie Adams, more of the sizeable Reading DA contingent, were carrying out running repairs on the map-holder on their tandem in the car park. John asked about the solo he had noticed in the back of their car. It was so Alan could continue if Leslie opted out at the return to Thorne after 800 km (she didn’t, of course!).
Mindful of my experience on this year’s Brimstone, I was keen to get plenty of sleep, so before long I went to see where I could doss down. The gym was already filling up, and the various other changing rooms didn’t seem too appealing, apart from a choice spot on a table top (already bagged). That settled it, I would sleep in the back of the van.
To my amazement, I did sleep soundly. I woke around 7 feeling tense, in a rather dulled sort of way. A shower—that’s the thing to relax me. Back in the building preoccupied randonneurs were emerging hollow-eyed from their sleeping bags. There’d been quite a chorus of snoring in the gym, apparently, as well as (Aargh! No!) an extra-rustly space blanket. I found the showers, undressed, then discovered they were stone cold. I decided to forgo the icy shower, on the grounds that I would be undergoing plenty of character-forming experiences over the next few days anyhow.
As randonneurs waited for breakfast in the club bar, they made valiant but distracted efforts at relaxed chitchat. I hoovered up food and numerous cups of tea as swiftly as possible, then went to ready Trice and luggage for the off. Mounting nervousness meant this took much longer than necessary, since I felt impelled to check the contents of each pannier several times. Eventually, with a sense of finality (i.e., Oh sod it), I manhandled the trike out, attached the panniers, and locked the van. This was it.
Cars were now double-parked in the club grounds. Near the clubhouse there were a couple of flag-bedecked Greenspeed recumbent trikes—Pete Gifford’s and Dai Harris’—so I pedalled the Trice over to bolster the recumbent presence. Richard Loke, an Internet recumbent acquaintance I’d not met in real life before, arrived in the nick of time. Laid-back bike, laid-back attitude.
The morning was grey and cool, and, what with my nerves and the temperature, the wait for the start was very chilly. At last I was off, at the back of the second group as we headed out at a sedate pace, everyone clearly conscious of the distance ahead. Also, I was informed by my companions, there was a headwind. This is normally an academic consideration on a recumbent trike, which is quite aerodynamic and low enough to take advantage of any shelter. However, on the roads around Thorne there isn’t any…
I’d vowed to ride at my own pace, but shortly after Howden, when I was swept up by a bunch containing Tim and Pauline Wainwright, the chance of a tow seemed too good to miss. (Several dozen conversations about recumbents omitted.) On flat ground the Trice can comfortably keep up with conventional bikes; it’s only when uphill gradients become steeper than a certain value, perhaps around 6 percent or so, that its weight and recumbency begin to take their toll.
Beyond Stamford Bridge the terrain began to roll a little, but not enough to slow the trike appreciably. Until, that is, a certain “grassy lane,” as the route sheet described it, which seemed to have been designed exclusively to frustrate effective triking. A luxuriant crop of grass down the middle hampered the drive wheel, while the front wheels jolted through gravel and potholes. As a final refinement, each wheel track was at a different level. Still, it was excellent for practising talking like a Dalek…
The countryside around Castle Howard was tremendous fun, steepish climbs followed by long straight descents, with loopy landscaping wherever the eye turned. I arrived at the Slingsby control somewhere in the middle of the field (somewhere in the middle of the village, actually) to discover that all that was on offer was cake and chocolate bars, and all the cake had gone. This proved to be the only glitch I encountered at any control.
After a brief stop I set off again on my own—it was a bit too hilly to make group riding practicable on the Trice, and I was intent on making good time before the Pennines slowed me down. I have no very clear memory of the leg, except that the hills didn’t last long. I rode near Ricky Goode for a while, overtaking on the downhills and losing ground on the ascents. The pubs and cafe in Coxwold looked very inviting, but I felt it was too soon for a stop, unfortunately. As I approached Sowerby I became aware of a motorbike on my tail. It stayed there for quite some distance—this was bizarre, I might be travelling reasonably quickly, but not that fast. I peered round dubiously. “It’s OK, it’s just your friendly AUK mobile controller.” It was Timm Frenzel. I paused for an energy drink at a garage, then rolled on gently to the Barton truck stop.
By the time I arrived truckers were heavily outnumbered by steaming cyclists, full of beans even before they had eaten. The wait for food was astoundingly short considering how busy the place was. I felt definitely in need of beans on toast, followed by apple pie. My feet were rather sore, so I took my shoes off when I sat down to eat.
I left with Tim and Pauline and half a dozen others, but, guess what, before long there was a hill and I was off the back. There’s no point worrying about this sort of thing on a recumbent trike. The machine has many virtues, but being first up climbs is not among them. After a kilometre or few I encountered a lone rider fiddling with his bike by the roadside. It was Ian Hill, and his new Axa dynamo and light combo had just sheared off. Fortunately he was also carrying battery lights. We set off down the road, exchanging tales of Inconvenient Bits I Have Known To Detach Themselves From Bikes, With Particular Reference to Dynamo Headlights.
With the confidence bred by three wheels, I whizzed down a 1 in 10 to the “may be slippery” wooden bridge on the way to Barnard Castle. At 52 kph I discovered there was a small but definite drop-off between tarmac and wood, but the Trice shrugged off the less than soft landing. I braked before tackling the step up off the bridge…
Ian was a congenial companion, but as the long climb of Teesdale began the mismatch between his natural pace on an upright bike and mine on a recumbent trike became clear. After a bit of polite throat-clearing he said he’d be off, if that was OK. Which of course it was.
I experienced a surge of joy shortly after Middleton-in-Teesdale, as I pedalled up the pass amid bleak moorland bathed in evening sun, the rushing river the only sound. As I was gawping at the view a couple of Smoky Mountain Wheelers passed me, but a short downhill allowed me to catapult past them with a nonchalant remark about the scenery. (Juvenile? Me?) The climb proved long but steady—perfect recumbent fodder—and as I ground upwards I tried without success to spot Langdon Beck Youth Hostel, the control on the return leg. Remember this, dear reader.
Though the ascent was not difficult, the camper van at the summit was a welcome sight. The tea and cake on offer in the cosy interior were even more welcome in the growing chill of twilight. I was a bit behind my notional schedule (which involved sleeping either at Carlisle or Gordon Arms), but I was feeling good so I reckoned the timetable could take care of itself.
The descent into Alston caused me to grin so broadly I feared the top of my head might fall off. Those of you unfortunate enough never to have gone down a hill on a recumbent trike (and I fear you may be in the majority), accept my commiserations. You don’t so much descend as plummet, and the sensation of speed is magnified by the fact that the road is whizzing by six inches south of your bum. Hub brakes on the front wheels mean you can lose speed astoundingly fast in wet or dry weather, and the handling means you don’t have to… What can I say but: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
Cobbles in Alston gave me rather more of a back massage than I would have liked, even when I tackled them at 8 kph. The pavements looked invitingly smooth, but were unfortunately occupied by strolling pedestrians making the most of the fine evening. Most inconsiderate. Ought to be a law against it. Etc.
The road to Bampton was rather up and down, but definitely more down than up, and, to my surprise, it was 11 or so in the evening before the Northumberland hills finally vanished into the gloom and I had to turn on the dynamo. Three watts of halogen bulb gave plenty of light for the descents, and I made excellent progress on smooth roads to the truckstop in Carlisle.
It was now around half past midnight. I had a good feed, then wondered whether to embark on the 95 km to the Gordon Arms bunkhouse. I felt a bit sleepy, and the next stage was a long one, so I bagged a bed for a couple of hours (no charge for a room with shower!).
I was back on the road shortly after 3 am, amid the finest of drizzles. It became light astoundingly soon. The A9 gradually became less boring and more lumpy, no surprise as I knew from the map that there was, hmm, the odd hill between Carlisle and Edinburgh. After Inverleithen there was an abrupt transition to impressive forest and moorland scenery, and a plentiful supply of exhilarating descents—and lengthy climbs. As further confirmation that I was now truly in Scotland, an oystercatcher perched on the parapet of a bridge. Playing the bagpipes (oh all right, that bit’s not strictly true).
A familiar bike was leaning on the wall of the Tushielaw Inn, and a familiar figure was stretched out on a table in the pub garden: Ricki Goode. That man can sleep anywhere… I launched on the climb of the pass that stood between me and breakfast at the Gordon Arms. Like most on the Scottish leg, it proved to be a steady and gentle ascent. Towards the top Ricki blasted past, then almost immediately stopped, muttering something about not being able to go on, bonking out, having to eat. Fifty yards further on was the summit, and the start of a descent that lasted all the way to the Gordon Arms. (Mad cackling omitted.)
Duncan Peet’s control was doing a brisk trade in microwaved scrambled eggs on toast, which (I decided) was just what I needed. After a few minutes Ian Hennessey, Dave [Lewis] and Anne [Learmonth], Mark Wholefood [Houlford], and (Big) Jim Churton arrived. Assuming they were already heading south, I congratulated them on making excellent time. It turned out they were still heading north. Oops. We sat with our microwaved eggs in the bunkhouse sniggering over stupid jokes until some spoilsport suggested it was time for more cycling.
I managed to hang on for possibly as much as half a mile of the climb from the Gordon Arms, then it was back to solo triking. As I crested the hill I began to encounter riders returning southward, Steve Abraham among them. I was deeply impressed. There was more exercise for the smiling muscles as I plunged down into Traquair. Citizens out for the Sunday papers gawped and did cartoon double-takes as Wallace, Gromit, and I sped by. Going straight to the point, a woman called out: “That looks comfy.” It was debatable whether the golfers or the sheep on the local golf course were more confused as I pedalled past. I waved regally and indiscriminately to campers, day-trippers, livestock, and cyclists as I rode along the valley. The climb was slow going, but that was fine, all the more time to take in the mountain scenery. Hang on, aren’t these supposed to be the Lowlands?
At some point in the blur as I hurtled down the mountain towards Edinburgh I passed Pedals and Whitebelly heading south, I think, but it’s hard to say, since I was travelling so fast I was appreciably younger when I reached Dalkeith than I had been at the top of the hill. Curious speckled roads in Dalkeith. Either that or my eyes were going.
There was a warm welcome at St Mary’s hall in the High Street, hot food on toast, and more bad jokes. I think it was here that Jim officially announced, in lugubrious tones, that he’d found his sense of humour again (he claimed to have mislaid it somewhere between Thorne and Carlisle). We’d covered less than a third of the distance, but somehow the fact of reaching the northern extremity of the route felt like an important milestone. All downhill from here, ha ha ha.
Except the climb out of Dalkeith, of course. Once again I bade a dignified farewell to le Groupe Houlford, and settled back for a good twiddle. The sky was clouding over, and by the time I turned off the A road and began the real climb (it must have been a real climb because there were names painted on the road) a light rain had begun to fall. Amid the usual recumbent chain thrash I became aware of an extraneous rattle. My dynamo headlight, mounted on the derailleur boom. Oh no, Inconvenient Bits I Have Known To Detach Themselves From Bikes all over again. OK, I told myself, stop at the top and tighten it up. I halted at the summit. A large black McCloud, spotting the unmissable opportunity, parked itself overhead, and the light rain swiftly became a downpour. Even when I tightened the bolt the light remained stubbornly wobbly, so, duh, brainwave time. I fished out an old bit of tyre from my panniers, extracted my Swiss army knife, and began fashioning a makeshift washer to go between light bracket and boom. Pausing only to refuse repeated offers of assistance from various riders heading north and Timm Frenzel on his motorbike. As I was stowing paraphernalia in the panniers John Hollands and Derek Hill from Reading passed by with a cheery hello.
I returned without incident to the Gordon Arms and swapped pedalling for the other main Audax activity, eating. A dazed Mark Beauchamp arrived, looking and sounding like death on a bad day. I put this down to a severe case of the bonk, and encouraged him to continue by giving a slightly rose-tinted account of the terrain between the Gordon Arms and Dalkeith. (I don’t think I’d have been so encouraging if I’d realised he was riding with cracked ribs after being knocked off his bike a week or so earlier. Mark did eventually pack, but only after more than 600km. Definitely the bravest ride of the event.)
There was a steady climb back towards the Tushielaw Inn, and I left the control shortly after a rider on an upright bike. Drizzle turned to rain again, but I concentrated on chasing, eventually splashing past my quarry shortly before the summit. The descent on wet roads held no terrors on the trike, and I was soon back in the valley. As the rain stopped, the midges started, and I was soon covered in small black splodges. After a mile or two the rider I had passed caught up again, and we began riding sort of together. I would pull away on the downhills, he would make up ground on the uphills, and we chatted away on the flat bits. There seemed to be more flat bits than I was expecting, a sure sign I was having a good patch. We were just too late to stop for tea at the Buddhist monastery beyond Eskdalemuir. My friend (another member of the Derby Mercury contingent, but I never did get his name) seemed gobsmacked I was attempting Edinburgh-London on a recumbent trike. I was pretty astounded I was doing it myself…
We passed the seismological station, where sensitive instruments were doubtless registering the tremors each time the Trice crossed a cattle grid. I recognised a steepish climb as the prelude to what would be a particularly tasty descent through a forest. Slightly spraining a lung, I overtook my companion just before the summit, then (Warp factor 8, Mr Sulu) whacked the trike into top gear and prepared to cackle. I was closing rapidly on another bike, no, a tandem. Hmm, I was about to overtake a tandem downhill (Set the phasers on stun!). I was going too fast to see my speed, pedalling at 150 rpm (Captain, the dilithium crystals cannae take it). Whoosh and I was past, surfing on adrenalin.
The biochemical boost kept the trike zinging over the rollers until Inverleithen, where a pause for the right turn onto the main A9 for Carlisle allowed my companion to catch up. We resumed our chat and attempted to ignore the steady stream of returning weekenders whistling past our right ears. I remembered the section from Longtown to Carlisle from my End to End—extremely easy, we’d hurtled along in team time trial style. Unfortunately at some point in the last three years this road had apparently been replaced by a mountain pass. I was paying the price for my 90 km good patch.
It was around 8 on a sunny Sunday evening when the Trice crawled to a halt outside the Carlisle truck stop. First things first, I got my card stamped, then collapsed onto the nearest chair, feeling like a deflated balloon (but there wasn’t one on the menu). I was muzzily aware I needed to eat, but hadn’t the energy to cross the room to the counter to order some food. Ian Hennessey was just leaving the control. “Are you all right, old chap?” he asked. “Just feeling a bit odd.” “Never mind, it can’t last too long on an event like this.”
Ian was right, fortunately. After a few minutes I began to feel hungry. In a spirit of empirical enquiry, I tried getting to my feet. Marshall 1, Gravity 0. So far so good. I tottered over to the counter and ordered cheese on toast, apple pie, milk, tea, and an appalling quantity of other stuff. By the time I’d ingested this lot I was twice the man I’d been before, and the notion of continuing to Langdon Beck before grabbing some z’s began to seem positively rational. I strode purposefully out into the sunset.
By the time I reached Bampton it had become dark enough to necessitate lights to be seen by, and chilly enough to require some more clothing. I turned on the LED lights front and rear, and donned thermals, jacket, and reflective belt. A sudden vivid recollection of all the northbound descending between Teesdale and Bampton swam into my mind. The next bit was going to be hard. Sure enough, my granny ring was soon in use, and the kilometres began to tick by in slow motion. I turned on the dynamo, but the light was almost useless, pointing down and to the side. Funny, I could see really well last night. Another few kilometres pass. Oh yes, I stuck that bit of rubber behind the bracket earlier today, I think lazily. Another few kilometres crawl by. Perhaps I’d better adjust the alignment of the headlight. After another few kilometres, I bend forward and adjust the beam. Now I can see. Not that there is anything to see, apart from a narrow ribbon of road and a lot of inky blackness.
Noting for the record that trike and brain are now both in slow motion, I pedal on, since it’s too cold to do anything else. After an age I reach Alston—the start of the long climb of Teesdale. The bottom of the ascent is both steep and cobbled. It’s some time after midnight, and as I bounce and rattle over the stones a local teenager says, sniggering: “Can I have a go of your bike, mister?” “You don’t want to go where I’m going,” I say, thinking of the climb. Before long the wall levels out into a slog. (Twiddling omitted.) I can see bike lights ahead, and I seem to be gaining. I put on a spurt, relatively speaking. The lights vanish, then reappear further away. And higher up.
An eon or so later the lights vanish but don’t reappear. Surely that must mean I’m near the top. Even as I climb wearing all the clothing I can muster, I feel chilled. For a fraction of a second after I crest the pass I feel elation, then the wind-chill bites and I begin shivering uncontrollably. No sign of any habitation. What have they done with Langdon Beck? I panic when I encounter a sign announcing I am entering Forest-in-Teesdale. Maybe I dozed through Langdon Beck… But no, here’s the L.B. sign, and the three houses and a pub that apparently constitute the village. I circle round, investigate each building, but there’s no sign of bikes or youth hostel, as far as I can see (not very). I continue the descent, very cautiously. A dimly lit building looms above the road on the left. Cars are parked in a small enclosure at the foot of the path, at the top of which bikes are just visible. There is a YHA sign. Yesss!
I confer honorary car status on the Trice and park it at the bottom. I manage to stand up only at the third attempt. It takes me several minutes to stagger up the short stony path to the hostel, since I am moving like a badly handled marionette. My puppeteer keeps on dropping the strings. My knees and feet are sore and extremely disobedient. What I really need now is some sleep, but all the beds are full, so I decide to have something to eat and lurch into the common room.
At first glance the dimly lit, blissfully warm room is empty apart from half a dozen riders chatting quietly at a long table. Then I gradually perceive that almost every horizontal surface has a sleeping randonneur on it, including several of the apparently empty chairs around the table. Jack Eason is sound asleep in a chair in the corner. I dozily eat the food I don’t really want, then totter out to see if there’s now a bed available. I’m in luck. I book a wake-up call in three hours’ time, and flake out on a bunk.
A familiar bleeping summons me from my slumbers. Funny, someone else must have the same travel alarm as me, I think, before realising that the sound is coming from my luggage. Oops, the alarm must have turned itself on. Not a good way to increase your popularity in a hostel… Back to sleep.
I wake to a sunny, clear morning, and find myself now in possession of a pair of functional legs. But what’s that rural smell? Oh dear, it’s me. Time for a shower and a change of clothes. I discover rather too late, namely after my shower, that my Packtowel (TM, of course) may be light and fast-drying, but only because it merely moves the moisture around on your body rather than absorbing it.
Revitalised and smelling appreciably less like the compost heap at the bottom of your garden, I chomp cereal and something on toast (again) and stride out to the Trice. The next few miles should be fun, since I will have Mr Gravity on my side. (Downhill zooming omitted.) I see an oddly unchirpy Paul Whitehead before Barnard Castle and chat for a while, before the temptation to unleash the trike on the descent becomes too powerful to resist. A quiet lane near Hutton Magna gives me the opportunity to establish that the maximum speed of a grey squirrel on level ground is 32 kph. I gobble the distance to the Barton truckstop so effortlessly that le Groupe Houlford are still there gobbling breakfast when I arrive. As I eat something on toast (again) I consider the position. It’s now a little after 8 on Monday morning, and there’s 150 km to go to Thorne. No point sleeping there. The next control with beds after that is Thurlby, about 140 km further on. A piece of cake, or at any rate several somethings on toast.
Ivo from Holland arrives, complaining of gear problems that mean he is falling behind his schedule. I sympathise, then make my excuses and leave. I have a Houlford to catch…
Seventy flat, increasingly warm, and entirely uneventful kilometres later I arrive at Raskelf village hall to be faced once more with the sight of Mark, Dave, Anne, Ian, and Jim eating. Well, it has been nearly three hours since the last meal. After lentil soup and more cake than seems entirely decent we waddle out to a hot, humid, and sunny afternoon. Out with the sun cream, for the first time on the ride.
Raskelf to Thorne is flat, so there’s no problem keeping up with the uprights. There’s rather more of a problem working out how a recumbent trike fits in with a group of five conventional bikes. Through experimentation, we find that I can perform a useful service as a car repellent—drivers give the trike a very wide berth since they can’t quite work out what it is, and probably assume I’m disabled. On the other hand, I’m not much good on the front of the group since there’s little benefit to be gained from latching on to my back wheel. For no detectable reason, a road race erupts as we ride through Stockton, and Dave and Jim make a breakaway. Mark and I give chase, and I clock 40 kph before I register the absurdity of playing nip and tuck 750 km into a ride and subside, cackling.
Mark is paying attention to the route sheet (usually a good ploy), so we don’t miss the left turn after the village. We loiter along for a bit, but there’s no sign of Dave and Jim ahead, or of Ian and Anne behind. After a few more kilometres we do some more loitering on a green in front of a garage. Still no sign, so we potter on.
We arrive at the Glews Garage control, and within moments the missing four reappear after their “interesting” main road excursions around York. A motorbike pulls up—not Timm this time, but a German woman who dismounts creakily, complaining to her companion that 400 km is a long way on two wheels. Little do they know… We’re soon back at Thorne. I find the van and change into clean clothes. I extract 800 kms’ worth of stinking kit and leave it to mature in the van, loading my panniers with the bag of clean stuff I cunningly left ready to pack. Since I haven’t used them in two and a half days on the road, I also leave my flipflops and the plastic bag full of plastic bags containing measured doses of Maxim. Now for some food.
By this stage I’ve developed severe toastophobia, and the sight of a baked potato with cheese and salad is extremely welcome. It’s a group in high spirits that sets off in the early evening for Lincoln. I’ve found my shades in my tum bag, and for some reason decide to wear them with the yellow lens, which I never use. The strange colour values, which are the usual deterrent, now strike me as rather entertaining. We gibber and snigger our way through flat and dull countryside. It’s suggested perhaps I could mount a small TV on the derailleur boom. Then, with one of those bean-bag trays perched on my midriff, I could have TV dinners as I ride along. Or I could use the end of the boom as a flower vase. There is muttering and groaning about the increase in pace whenever Jim takes a turn on the front. The next time he ups the tempo I volunteer to chase him down, drop to the middle ring, and buzzsaw through his back tyre with my chainring. After Gainsborough everyone decides to stop for a pee, at two-minute intervals. For some reason this is immensely amusing. The hill shortly before Lincoln is interesting: The trike keeps up with the uprights until the gradient steepens to 10 percent, then I’m off the back. But not for long (puff, pant).
The garage control in Lincoln turns out to sell the tastiest sandwiches in this arm of the galaxy, or maybe it’s just the distance we’ve covered. We empty the shelves and stand around yakking, making the shop untidy, and serving as an awful warning to respectable citizens. Off again, into the gathering dark.
Unfortunately there’s immediately another hill, rather longer and steeper this time, and by the time I’ve winched my way to the top le Groupe Houlford has vanished. At this point I remember that, since Dave has been navigating for the last few hours, at the garage I didn’t bother to refold my route sheet so I could see the relevant section. Also, thanks to the yellow shades I’m still wearing for some reason, I couldn’t read it even if I had refolded it. I press on, hoping for a glimpse of back lights. Eventually, as I crest a small rise near an enormous air base to see the A15 stretching cyclist-free into the distance, common sense begins slowly to reassert itself. I stop, sort out the route sheet, and retrace a little way to the lane for Scopwick. Before long I stop again, put on untinted glasses, and extract my headtorch so I can actually read the route.
As I set off I have vague notions of attempting to catch up, but before long I am distracted by a strange and magical night in the Fens. On the map the route to Thurlby is pretty much a straight line, but every village brings twists and turns that bamboozle my sense of direction. In Helpringham, or was it Heckington, the route sheet seems to take me in a full circle. Village after village is lit, but deserted. Occasionally I encounter major roads, with lorries charging into the night. Then it’s back to empty lanes and blossom-scented air.
There’s a warm welcome from John Miller and crew at the Thurlby control, and before long I’m showered, changed, and alternately troughing and gabbling in the cosy kitchen. As John shows me upstairs to a bunk, I realise that someone has surreptitiously swapped my legs for those of an aged and infirm dotard. Each stair is a major effort. My upper bunk looms above me like the north face of the Eiger, but the need for sleep is so strong I somehow manage to haul myself up.
Three hours’ kip restore a bit of bounce. The mission for today is simple: Epping and back, a mere 300km, leaving a trifling 150 or so for tomorrow. And it’s flat, of course. No problem.
I set off into the sunny morning at a leisurely pace. I amble through Market Sleeping, Little Snoring, and Dozing St James. I notice with mild interest that my speed on level ground (the only kind on offer) is 22 kph. Perhaps I should harness a team of squirrels to the trike. Clearly my legs have not yet woken up. Billy Graham pops up at my shoulder, and is so tickled by Wallace and Gromit that he takes their picture. There’s quite a lot of traffic now. Cops by the roadside train their radar gun on the Trice. I look interrogative. “Fifteen miles an hour,” they shout, falling about laughing. The alarm has gone off, but my legs merely push the snooze button, turn over in bed, and jam their head under the pillow.
Plod plod plod. There’s a bit of a hill to Upwood; the first northbound riders are whizzing down as I crawl up. I summon maximum concentration and effort for the succession of busy roundabouts in Huntingdon, telling myself that I am almost at Longstowe. The day is now very warm, and I am uncomfortably sweaty in my early-morning clothing. No point in stopping, Longstowe is just around the corner. A couple of kilometres at most. I notice the route sheet: 5.9 km to go. The road goes down, then up, then down, then up. Where’s the turnoff? An age later it appears, and I crawl into the car park at Longstowe village hall.
Cheese and tomato sandwiches, plus a good deal of other stuff, effect an almost instant transformation on my level of energy. I realise I must have been suffering from the bonk almost the whole way from Thurlby, despite having eaten approximately my body weight at breakfast. Slathered in sun cream, in shorts and short sleeves, I set off for Epping.
The road is now officially undulating. Royston is another succession of busy roundabouts that tax what is left of my brain, then a hill that has me in bottom gear for the first time in several hundred kilometres. It’s a relief to turn away from the traffic onto quiet lanes again. I plummet down a descent, then begin a steepish climb towards some radio masts. The sun is warm, birds are trilling, and the hedgerow is full of the scent of flowers. I potter beatifically up the hill. A voice says hello from somewhere above my right ear. I am being overtaken by someone on foot (and I don’t care). At least he’s jogging…
After a long, rolling straight run to Puckeridge the route becomes quite complicated, so, duh, time to get the brain out of neutral. With routefinding and the steady stream of riders heading back towards Thurlby, the leg passes quickly. I wave a lot, and wonder if I look as wrecked as they do. The roads around Waltham Abbey are extremely busy and the drivers notably aggressive, but the trike seems to spark bemused interest rather than hostility. Car after car, lorry after lorry, waits patiently behind for a safe opportunity to overtake, then gives me plenty of clearance as it passes.
I’ve been forewarned of the climb up to Epping Youth Hostel. As I start on my way up, Dave, Anne, and company come zooming down. Ann shouts something about curry. The prospect of another toast-free meal has the trike almost whizzing uphill. As I lever myself to my feet at the hostel, Rocco’s [the late John “Rocco” Richardson was AUK chairman] well-drilled pit crew leaps into action. First things first: “Any bike problems?” It seems a pity to have to say no, so I’m briefly tempted to invent a minor mechanical. The choice of food is overwhelming. After a couple of minutes’ daze I remember Anne’s shout and go for curry. Robert Watson is helping at the control, so I catch up on news of other riders and tell him (probably rather more than he wants to know) about my E-L experiences while packing away embarrassing quantities of Tracy Horseman’s famed cooking.
John warned me it would be hard to tear myself away from the hospitality at Epping. It is, but eventually I manage to. I safely negotiate the motorized maelstrom and am soon back on picturesque lanes. The sunny early evening is sheer delight, and I am enjoying myself so much that (a) I miss the left turn after Much Hadham (b) I gladly retrace a few kilometres uphill rather than ride a short way along the A120. As I hurtle down the hill after Barkway the width of my grin seriously compromises aerodynamics. I cross Dai Harris, grinning almost as hugely as he pedals his Greenspeed trike up the hill.
After nearly 1200 kilometres, Royston was always going to present a navigational challenge. To make things a little more entertaining, a crucial road is closed. I dither and ride around in circles for a while, then ask directions. Naturally, I am sent around the ring road, but never mind, it’s flat and fast, and I am soon bashing along the A1198 to Longstowe.
Back at Longstowe bizarre things start to happen. I order my food, and start talking trikes with Pete Gifford, whose Greenspeed makes the Trice look almost upright. There are very few riders at the control, Pete and me, Jack, Billy, and one or two others, but at intervals shouts from the kitchen announce the arrival of food that nobody has ordered. (Helpers are almost as tired as riders by now. A while later I realise that riders’ lunchtime orders are reappearing as they pass back through in the evening.) Jack is talking of following a main road route back to Thurlby. I’m tempted, but decide to follow the utterly accurate route sheet instead. I set off into the dark with Jack’s group. Before long we encounter Yvonne from the Netherlands, who is still heading south. (Yvonne’s dogged ride, right on the time limit, was a perpetual subject of conversation at controls.) There’s a net loss of altitude on the road to Huntingdon, and the trike pulls away. It’s now after 10 in the evening, so the town is quiet and I have the roundabouts to myself. As I head away from the lights of Huntingdon into the dark of the Fens I realise a couple of things: I’m getting rather sleepy, and I don’t have my bottle filled with Old Abraham’s Patent Remedy (Coke and water), which has done an excellent job of keeping me awake and on the road over the previous three nights.
By the time I reach Upwood navigation is starting to pose problems. “Fourth left” is fine, but it presupposes you can count up to four with a reasonable certainty you haven’t nodded off at some point in the sequence. I’m just glad I don’t have to do anything really complicated. Like balancing.
The Trike of the Living Dead is trundling along a flat, straight Fenland road. Only part of my attention is on pedalling. What really interests me is the psychedelic eels squirming and wriggling at the edge of my field of vision. I didn’t know they came out at night… A blob of light appears in the distance. Clearly a UFO. It splits into two blobs, and there is a faint thrumming noise. Hang on, it’s an oncoming car—steer straight, stay awake. Vroom. It’s gone. The eels come back out to play. Voices start up a running commentary, in fluent Martian. Ack ack ack. Time for a sing-song, a few selections from the Grateful Dead songbook in English and Martian.
My progress might be described as erratic. At intervals I pedal furiously, then I drift along, watching the eels I know aren’t there. In Thorney I see the lights of another bike ahead and give chase, assuming it’s another E-L rider. It’s not, but the returning local greets the hollow-eyed apparition on a recumbent trike with remarkable sang-froid. I ride past the left turn for Peakirk, thinking, quite lucidly: “I should turn left there.” I continue for a kilometre or so, then turn back and take the right road.
The eleven kilometres of straight, flat road to Peakirk are Eel Central. I zig towards the drain by the side of road, recollect myself with a start, and zag back. (What I should do, of course, is have a brief roadside nap. But I don’t.) I somehow find my way to Market Deeping and the A15. And then I’m at Thurlby, but unnervingly I have no recollection of any point in between. It’s half past two in the morning. I have to manhandle my shoes to unclip my feet from the pedals—good job I’m on a trike. It’s a minute or two before I can speak coherently, but, though the folks at the control are as shattered as I am, I’m soon fed, watered, and in bed.
When I reappear in the kitchen after four hours’ dreamless sleep I find Richard Loke there, and we swiftly decide to make the final 150 kilometres a Grand Recumbent Day Out. We linger over breakfast, then set out gently. It’s interesting to see the stretch from Thurlby to Lincoln in daylight. In one village workmen are perched on the sails of a windmill. Somehow the magical scents from my southbound trip on Monday night are no longer there in daylight, or perhaps they just can’t compete with Old Trice (Parfum de Randonneur).
There’s a wonderful moment at the garage control in Lincoln. There aren’t many sandwiches left. We choose a couple and tell the cashier effusively how delicious her sandwiches are absolutely the best we’ve ever encountered and not to change her supplier and don’t mind us gabbling but we’ve come 1300 kilometres which is rather a long way really all things considered. Then the sandwich man arrives with fresh stock, so we buy a couple more and go outside to picnic on a low wall. Sandwich man comes over, gives us a couple more sandwiches for the road, and wishes us a safe journey.
We ride the last section with extreme care. We don’t want any problems now. And there aren’t any. At around half past three we pull into the car park at Thorne, to a scattering of applause from implausibly fresh-looking riders. I manage to unclip one foot, but have to grab my shoe to get the other one out of the pedal. There’s an enormous step down into the clubhouse, more of a precipice really—funny, I didn’t notice that before the start… So that’s it, my first ever event over 600 km and first ever event on recumbent trike (can I claim an unofficial record?). I feel a pang of regret that it’s all over, but this is not a feeling shared by my knees, I suspect. That E-L has been as easy as it has is due largely to the superb organisation of Bernard and his team, from route sheet to controls, which has meant that riders have needed to worry about nothing except riding. A flagship event indeed… Thanks everyone!
I carried a small bum bag, worn as a tum bag, with money, brevet card, lip salve, sun cream, folding toothbrush and small tube of toothpaste, cap, Swiss army knife, bonk rations (the Maxim bar I bought on top of Yad Moss and carried for 1200 km), sunglasses, travel alarm, and kerchief. I carried my route sheet in a small Ortlieb map case slung around my neck. Most of the time I remembered not to put bananas in my back pocket.
On the trike I had two small Ortlieb panniers (the size intended for front racks).
Clothing (all of this was used, except the sandals): Two long-sleeve Helly Hansen thermals, two short-sleeve cycling shirts, two pairs of shorts, two pairs of longs, two pairs of socks, gloves, mitts (I left a pre-packed bag with another similar set of clothing at Thorne, plus a spare pair of cycling shoes); Gamex top; Pertex top; reflective belt; flipflops (left at Thorne); Packtowel. I could have done with an extra thermal and another pair of shorts.
Toilet/medical stuff (only the first two were used): Shampoo (almost empty); small container with bum cream; tissues; shock-absorbing insoles in case of really sore feet; blister kit; Nurofen.
Bike stuff: Two spare 559 inner tubes for the back wheel, three spare 406 tubes for the front wheels; VAR tyre tool; puncture kit; three adhesive tyre boots in case of cuts in the casing; Topeak multi-tool; allen keys; three-way spanner; ten long zip-ties; a couple of M5 allen bolts; small, almost empty container of chain lube; spare 3W halogen bulb for dynamo headlight; Petzl headtorch; Vista 400 headlight and mounting bracket; four spare AA batteries; spare water bottle; three-inch section of old folding tyre. I used the allen keys, torch, lube, and a bit of old folding tyre.
General: Pages from motoring atlas with the route marked on them; spare route sheet; plastic bag full of measured doses of Maxim powder (dumped at Thorne; if I wanted an energy drink I just stopped at a garage); space blanket (for use in bus shelters only!). All unused.
On the trike: Water bottle and pump, of course; Lumotec headlight; Nordlicht dynamo; LED front light, mounted on offside; two LED rear lights, mounted side by side on top of the rack; and Wallace and Gromit (thanks, guys!).