This is a report on the 2001 London-Edinburgh-London (more accurately, Thorne-Edinburgh-London-Thorne), which I rode on a prototype Trice Micro, a lightweight recumbent trike. The event was on a much smaller scale than LEL 2013, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t fun…
It was the Friday night before Edinburgh-London, and Ian Hennessey, Annemarie Manley, and I were in a packed pub in Hatfield trying not to drink too much beer. Some of us were succeeding better than others. Annemarie, who was entered for the 800 km event, had the maps out. This was a bad idea, I realised too late. The route from Thorne to Dalkeith and back looked dauntingly long, even at the 1:250,000 scale; I didn’t dare contemplate the southern 600 km. I reminded myself of the golden rule: Don’t think about how far you’re going. Just think about the distance to the next control. Or preferably to the next instruction on the route sheet. Or, even more preferably, don’t think about anything at all.
The bedroom in the pub overlooked the village church. I only heard the clock chime eleven, twelve, two, and four, so I must have got some sleep at least. Every time I surfaced from my fitful doze I drank some more water. It was quite a long walk to the bathroom, as I discovered several times. So it was a well-hydrated, slightly footsore, and somewhat red-eyed randonneur who faced, more from duty than from appetite, a substantial Yorkshire breakfast at 7:30 on Saturday morning.
By the time Ian and I had parked the hired van outside Noel Simpson’s place and ridden to Thorne Rugby Club, there was only 20 minutes to go until the start. Just long enough to say hello to my fellow recumbent pilots: Dave Ross (elegant carbon Windcheetah with carbon tailbox), Ian Humphries from Oz (low, narrow aluminium MR Swiftlet trike with a giant yellow homemade corrugated plastic tail fairing), and Robert Webb (exploding hair, bush hat, alarming fluorescent leggings, Orbit Crystal recumbent bike barely visible beneath huge mound of baggage). Pete Gifford was risking vertigo by riding his upright trike, and would engage in further jiggery-pokery at the 800 km point by switching to a bike in the interests of greater speed. No upright backsliding for me—I was on my ICE Micro recumbent trike, which is low enough to make the XL I rode on Paris-Brest-Paris look like a high-wheeler. I sneaked round the outside of the queue of bikes at the start (it’s okay, I was just avoiding potholes. No, really) and under the rope cordoning riders off from the car park. All too soon we were off.
Testosterone poisoning is a terrible affliction, particularly at the start of long events. Ian Hennessey, riding 68-inch fixed, was clearly suffering from a bad attack of the Red Mist. We leap-frogged grouplets until we found ourselves in a proper AUK bunch (Moulton? Check! Fixed-wheel? Check! Trike? Check! Schmidt dynamo? Check! Rider without m*dg*ards, whistling nonchalantly? Check!). We bashed across the flatlands north of Howden at evens. This is officially the most boring road in the UK, and I briefly wished I’d brought a good book along, or even a bad one. Stuart and Dave of Wellington Wheelers were working hard on the front, and the pace cranked up from evens to even more ridiculous. It didn’t seem altogether prudent to be charging along at between 35 and 40 kph so early in an event so long. In a fit of public-spiritedness (all right, I admit it, there may have been a small amount of self-interest involved), I rode up to the front, where Ian, his legs a blur, was hanging grimly on in Stuart’s slipstream. “Um” gasp “maybe” gasp “it would” gasp “be” gasp “an idea” gasp (shuddering intake of breath) “toeaseoffabit,” I said. “Nnnnh” gasp (jerk of head towards Stuart) “sacrificial” gasp (shuddering intake of breath) “Wellingtonwheeler,” Ian observed urbanely. Oh well, I tried.
I carved my way through queueing traffic in Stamford Bridge in a way that would have been ill-advised without my sizable upright escort, and managed to make it through the first green light. The terrain began to undulate gently, and the roads became a bit rougher. I gratefully seized the excuse to adopt a slightly gentler pace. Even so, the halt provided by a closed level crossing was more than welcome, especially as the weather was now very warm and humid. I noticed a slight rattle from the front left mudguard—it was not far to the first control, I’d check it out then.
Abruptly, after we crossed the busy A64, the Howardian hills began. A steepish wiggly climb in full sun emerged at a stone obelisk amid trees, then the ruler-straight road roller-coasted through gatehouses, past ornamental lakes, and round yet more obelisks marking the entrance to Castle Howard (the Howards were clearly of the opinion that if you’ve got it, you should flaunt it. It being obelisks, among other things). The succession of fast descents leading directly into twiddly uphills meant illegal quantities of fun on the trike, but had its dangers: As I approached the last, particularly steep climb of the series, clicking down through the gears, I watched a car overtake riders at the brow of the hill then all but collide with an oncoming vehicle, which veered into the verge, throwing up a plume of dust and stones.
At the Hovingham control Mike Sadler’s well-drilled team was dispensing pasta salad to steaming riders, who were gobbling their food down in the traditional first-control kind of way. I gobbled my food down in the traditional first-control kind of way and, donning my deerstalker and pausing only to stuff a little rough shag into my meerschaum, strode outside to investigate the Mystery of the Rattling Mudguard. The cause of the rattle was elementary—the left front mudguard had cracked across two-thirds of its width just below the lower attachment point. Hmm. My Micro has experimental aluminium mudguard brackets that are lighter but less stiff than the normal steel brackets. I wondered whether to remove the mudguards now and pick them up on the way back to Thorne, but decided instead just to break off the loose bit, packing it (for later forensic investigations) in my luggage.
Ian emerged, still hyped up, and informed me he was off, and that I’d catch up. I was still hyped up, but not quite that hyped up. Besides, it was interesting to watch the comings and goings at the control. Dave Ross and Ian Humphries arrived, followed shortly by Steve Abraham, riding a knee-snapping fixed gear as usual. Steve had lost his wallet and brevet card, but seemed fairly laid-back about it. In his shoes… Let me rephrase that—I’ve seen Steve’s shoes. In his position I’d have been displaying the kind of equanimity and sang-froid Kermit the frog is famed for. Kindly uncle Jim Churton lent him some money. Successively, at 30-second intervals, the weather seemed to promise frazzling heat and drenching rain, so I applied sunscreen, checked that my waterproof was accessible, then set off again.
It was my firm intention to take this next section at a more sensible pace. My intention became firmer and my pace even more sensible as I encountered several substantial climbs that I’d unaccountably forgotten. After a seemingly interminable low-grade uphill trudge, there were several switchback downhills to exercise those all-important grinning muscles. Unfortunately I had to stop at the crest of one climb to retighten the allen bolt attaching one m*dg*ard to the kingpin. I made a mental note to propose a motion banning m*dg*ards at the next AGM—merely giving riders the option not to use them scarcely seemed sufficient.
After I turned onto the road for Coxwold gravity was on my side again, and the trike shot past Newburgh Priory with barely time for me to register a general impression of fine landscaping and a place I’d like to see at somewhat less than Mach 2 one day. The climb through the pretty village of Coxwold (home of Laurence Sterne, writer of Tristram Shandy and spiritual forefather of the parenthetical digression. And thus a person close to my heart. As you may have surmised) proceeded at a statelier pace. As I puffed past the church at the top of the village I recalled reading of an annual cyclists’ thanksgiving service in Coxwold. Thanksgiving for having reached the top of the hill, I presumed.
Traffic queues at roadworks in Sowerby were followed by a few miles of pleasant lane, then I turned onto the A167, which proved to have the worst shake-and-bake road surface I’ve ever encountered. My teeth were dancing in my head and bells rang as my brain pinballed around my skull. Through blurred vision I eventually twigged that the front nearside m*dg*ard was doing the Funky Chicken again. I stopped and rummaged in the pannier for an allen key. Ian Humphries and Dave Ross passed by and immediately stopped to offer assistance.
None was needed, but this was a fine and heartwarming example of recumbent trike solidarity. We set off together, and before long startled Sheila Simpson on the B-road to Bolton-on-Swale. (Come on, you’d be startled too if you encountered three recumbent trikes in succession!) But Ian and Dave were riding a little faster than I wanted to at this point, so I quietly dropped back. I slowed just enough, it transpired, to catch a heavy shower in the last couple of kilometres before the Barton truck stop. That’ll teach me…
Grab water bottles; get card stamped; order food; sit down; remove shoes; sort out route sheet; lapse into coma (while—the difficult bit—retaining sufficient awareness of the outside world to notice when my food order is called); wake up suddenly when food arrives; start bantering. I was slipping smoothly into my long-ride routine. Egg and tomatoes on toast, apple pie, a glass of milk, and a mug of tea put up little resistance. The pie took a few minutes to arrive, so I practised my seated sleeping again. I was (sort of) keen to get back on the road, so told Ian and Dave they’d catch me soon enough.
I’d remembered the picturesque wooden bridge across the Tees at Whorlton, and also (drat) the sharp tree-shaded climb to the village and the tempting pub in the square, but the entry in The Fit Triker’s Guide to the Galaxy for the road into Barnard Castle was unhelpfully brief: “Harmless.” I modified this to “Mostly harmless” in view of another tooth-rattling road surface.
Barnard Castle has a castle, of course, but doesn’t stop there. It has a proper French château too: the Bowes Museum, seemingly imported straight from the Loire to Northumbria a century ago. When I rode through Barnard Castle on Edinburgh-London 1997 I promised myself I’d come back and explore. Well, I was coming back at least. Exploration would have to wait for another time. I pencilled it in for 2005…
The Pennines loomed. An upright rider passed me on the climb out of Barnard Castle and slowly edged ahead. Then, for no discernible reason, he stopped and delved frantically in his luggage. After a few seconds he extracted a trilling mobile phone. Today’s top tip: Switch off your mobile before mounting your bike. Or trike, of course.
Ian and Dave caught me again (this was becoming a habit), and we formed a relaxed trike peleton. The route was now providing proper upland scenery: brown hills dotted with sheep and criss-crossed with dry-stone walls, sturdy farmhouses nestling wherever there was a little shelter, cloudy grey skies. Yes, the sky was definitely beginning to look a little menacing. Drizzly rain began to fall after Middleton-in-Teesdale. The road was now showing no desire to fall at all. We encountered Sheila again, and she alerted us to the phone box that served as a landmark for the control at Langdon Beck youth hostel—a valuable tip, which I filed away for use on the southward leg.
We parked the trikes among the cars down by the road before tottering up the path to the hostel. The team at the control were doing an remarkable job of dealing with ravenous hordes of riders, though they were slightly hampered by the mental arithmetic required by the policy of charging a small sum for each individual item rather than an all-in fee. I managed to snaffle a vacant seat at the long table, chatted for a while, dozed a bit (just 200 km into the ride—was this a good sign?), ate something eggy, dozed some more. The control was very crowded. A tandem-riding couple from British Columbia had to crawl under the table to get out of their seats by the window. Ian and Dave said they were off. That was fine by me—I still had an appointment to keep with a bowl of rice pudding and peaches. Especially as a notice warned that the Carlisle truck stop would not be serving hot food after 10 o’clock.
By the time I emerged from the control drizzle was definitely turning to rain, and there was a bit of a chill in the air. Time for leg-warmers and waterproof, I thought, but after 10 km of steady but sweaty ascent to the summit of Yad Moss I was cursing both, in a half-hearted kind of way. This was the highest point of the route, but all I could see was raindrops on my glasses. I stopped and wiped them. Ah, that was far better. For as much as 10 seconds I had a view of a featureless grey wall of dank fog, then it was back to raindrops on glasses. Consequently, as I screamed down into Alston I saw the cobbles only at the last nanosecond. Fortunately the Hope disc brakes on the Micro work rather well. And even more fortunately the pavements in Alston are not cobbled.
Alston claims to be the highest market town in England. Brampton is down on the flatlands by the coast. Consequently gravity seemed to provide as much propulsion on this stage as I did, and I was feeling perky when I arrived in Carlisle. I felt as though I’d now covered enough distance for the ride to be properly under way. After following the progress of Friday’s first Pyrenean stage of the Tour de France on France-Inter while driving up to Thorne, I was keen to know what had happened on Saturday’s stage, and asked Ray Smith as he was stamping me in. Ray didn’t know, but Julian “We have the technology” Beach soon found out via his WAP phone. Armstrong again…. Respect! [Oh the irony, from a 2013 perspective!] Even better, the truck stop was still serving hot meals after all. Ian and Dave were feeling the effects of racing the Canadian tandem all the way from Langdon Beck and were proposing to get a few hours’ sleep. Ian told me there was still a room left. Mmm, sleep. I bagged the room.
I had a shower, on the mountaineer’s principle (because it was there, of course), and settled down for a couple of hours of cosy doze, made all the cosier by the sound of falling rain outside. Some bit of me was evidently keen to get back on the road, because I woke before my alarm call. As ever, the keen bit dragged the rest with it, and before long I found myself pedalling steadily in darkness along the A9 through a persistent drizzle.
Not Quite Nirvana
Shortly after I passed the sign saying “Welcome to Scotland” the drizzle shifted up a gear or two and became something rather more drenching. Perhaps this was just a coincidence. I turned off the main road in Langholm and rediscovered a couple of steep climbs that my memory of EL 1997 had blanked out. I could see my memory’s point, as I toiled up the slope in an embarrassingly low gear. The rain was easing off now. I needed a pee and to turn off my lights. The stop was just long enough to allow Dave and Ian to catch up again. Or was it again again? Or again again again? Anyhow, the trike squadron re-formed and set off through picturesque scenery composed of approximately equal parts lumps, trees, and rushing water.
I’d noticed before that the character of the buildings changes abruptly as you cross the border into Scotland. All of a sudden almost every structure you see is low and white. The Eskdalemuir control, however, clearly wasn’t in Scotland. We rode through the straggling village, full of low white buildings, then turned into an entrance decked with prayer flags. Suddenly we were confronted with a huge, gaudily painted temple covered in gilded sculptures. An AUK sign directed us round three sides of the building, all equally psychedelic. Trying, with variable success, to get our lower jaws into some kind of proximity to the rest of our faces, we parked the trikes by the temple steps and went into the control proper.
What appeared to be a jet engine borrowed from a 747 was roaring away at one end of a large and chilly half-finished hall with unglazed windows. A few riders were huddled round the afterburner; many more, wearing plenty of clothing but still with a blue tinge to their complexions, were seated at tables towards the far wall. Several inert figures were lying on mattresses under mounds of blankets at the far end or the room. I got my brevet card stamped and shot over to the trestle tables of food, a porridge-seeking missile in (more or less) human form. Oh no, porridge was off… Or, more accurately, not on yet. Moodily, I ate cereal, toast, and a mysterious beige paste that turned out to be hummous. Then a maroon-robed, shaven-headed monk passed a cauldron of steaming porridge in through the window. Ah, bliss… Or should that be nirvana? No—nirvana is the absence of all desire, and I definitely desired porridge.
In high good humour, the trike squadron set off from Eskdalemuir, Tibet, for a day playing with the Scottish mountains. Ian did his best to miss the turn by the Tushielaw Inn (Andrey Hannolainen, the only Russian rider on EL, would later miss the turn too and find himself in Selkirk, much to his discomfiture). We summoned Ian back and set ourselves to the task of reeling in the upright group we could see further up the hill. We narrowed the gap substantially on the climb, then rocketed past on a descent that had me whooping with joy. I just had time to recognise the Gordon Arms hotel as a former EL control before we embarked on the next pass. So called, of course, because we soon passed another small group on upright bikes.
(A short digression on the subject of recumbent trikes and climbing: Recumbent trikes differ widely in their handling and performance. There are machines that are the equivalent of expedition tourers, and machines that are the equivalent of race bikes. Not realising this, I first rode events on a trike that was at the staider end of the spectrum, and concluded that trikes would necessarily be a lot slower uphill than an upright bike. Then I rode a lower, lighter Trice XL on PBP, and found the uphill performance penalty was greatly reduced. My current trike, a Trice Micro, is lower and substantially lighter than the XL, with a stiffer seat that aids power transfer. I still don’t climb quite as fast on the Micro as on my upright, but the speed differential is minimal.)
Still climbing steadily—oh all right, slowly—we rattled over a cattle grid. Cows were grazing peaceably by the roadside. With a chill, we noticed that one heavily built “cow” had long pointy horns, and, er, enormous bollocks. I’m no countryman, but even I know that large dangly testicles are not standard equipment on cows. I uneasily recalled all the horses that have reacted badly to the trike, and began to compute my chances of outrunning a charging bull uphill. Not good, since you ask… I eyed the bull warily, but it had seen it all. Titanium Moultons, beam bikes, riders on fixed wheel. What did a few recumbent trikes matter? “I expect some Italian will turn up on a Brompton before long,” the bull’s world-weary gaze said. It was right, of course.
The trikes screamed (and their riders cackled) all the way down into Innerleithen and screeched to a halt outside the local Asian grocery—about the only on-route watering hole between Eskdalemuir and the outskirts of Edinburgh. What should I have? Irn Bru (Scotland’s other national drink, guaranteed free from all natural ingredients)? A bridie or two? No, I wasn’t feeling that adventurous. Milk and flapjack would do.
In strict formation and bright sunshine, we climbed and descended (Hoo hoo! Ha ha! Hee hee!) another couple of small passes. All of a sudden, as we barreled down towards the A7, Ian wasn’t there any more. No point waiting when we were this close to Dalkeith—he’d catch us at the control.
Audax Ecosse were operating an “All You Can Eat for £3” policy at Dalkeith Rugby Club. I did my best to prove that this was a costly mistake. Ian turned up—he’d been delayed by a mudguard committing hara-kiri. The chairs around the dining tables were safely unyielding, but around the perimeter of the room the seats were dangerously comfy. On a large screen at the end of the room, England were losing a test match. Snores shook the air. Dave ate, then announced with a faraway look in his eyes that he was just going to have a bit of a lie down. It was the middle of the day. I wasn’t going to lie down to sleep on a comfy chair. Oh no. I’d just rest my head on a nice hard table.
One way and another, we seemed to spend rather longer than I’d anticipated in Dalkeith, but eventually we tore ourselves away from omelettes, TV, and squishy chairs and pedalled off southwards. Would the hills be even more fun going south? Well, yes, as far as the climb after the Gordon Arms. Dave and Ian led the charge up the hill, overtaking a straggling line of upright bikes. I followed, at a slightly more moderate pace, since I was beginning to feel a bit feeble. This information would probably not have gone down too well with the honking rider I passed two-thirds of the way up. I had the distinct impression that he found being passed by three recumbent trikes in succession a bit demoralising.
The road between the Tushielaw Inn and the Tibetan temple wasn’t quite demoralising, but definitely seemed a good deal slower heading south. It might have been a slog if the scenery had been less attractive. As it was, it was merely an opportunity to gawp at the rushing river, forests, and broad sweeps of moorland. But I was definitely in need of sustenance. Or possibly a replacement set of legs.
Had the Tibetan temple been a figment of my imagination? No, it was still there, still psychedelic. A (different) shaven-headed beaming monk was dispensing meaty-looking spaghetti Bolognese. I asked whether there was anything veggie to be had, eliciting an even broader grin. “This is veggie,” he beamed. It was lip-smackingly good. Ian and Dave headed off, but I still had some faffing around to do. It began raining again, so I faffed some more, in the hope that it might stop. It didn’t—oh well, time to go anyway.
Shortly there were a couple of very sharp hills, but I didn’t care: My legs and most of the rest of me were full of Buddhist pasta. I waved beatifically to Annemarie and Sean Flynn as I tootled past. As I hurtled down a long descent I thought I’d alarm myself by seeing just how fast I was going, only to discover that my computer was now jiggling about with its face towards the tarmac. Time for a running repair. I stopped by a grey stone cottage with a garden resembling an explosion in a flower shop, and wondered what to do. I didn’t fancy rummaging through my luggage for the roll of tape I was almost sure I had somewhere, so instead I cast about for that other standby of the randonneur, the handy twig. Scotland is well provided with handy twigs, fortunately. I loosened the computer mount, jammed a bit of twig between it and the handlebar, and retightened it. If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing as halfheartedly as you think you can get away with. After 600 km or so, at any rate.
Bill Carnaby, heading north after starting in Harlow, was waiting by the roadside in Langholm, presumably to rendezvous with Annemarie. There were now quite a few oncoming riders. I spotted Dr Box on the A9, wearing the trademark Pilgrin beam—I’m sorry, Pilbeam grin.
The Carlisle control was very busy. As I was getting my card stamped, Ray and Julian gave me an update on the last mountain stage of the Tour. Armstrong was obviously slipping, and had only (ahem!) managed fourth place. There seemed to be quite a few Italians at the truckstop, and, unsurprisingly, it had almost run out of pasta. But not quite, I was relieved to discover. With my precious plateful of pasta (and also chips—if I remembered correctly, there were lots of hills between Carlisle and Langdon Beck) I sidled past a table of Italians who were gesturing vehemently at each other, and joined Ian and Dave.
Ian, whose longest ride of the year so far had been about 120 km, was wondering whether to opt out after 800 km at Thorne, mindful that he was going to be racing in the world HPV championships in Brighton in a week or so. We decided we’d ride to Langdon Beck, then make our decisions there.
We zoomed across flat terrain to Brampton, where we stopped to switch on lights. Once more I found myself passing through the Northumberland hills in the dark, only this time ghostly Harlow riders were emerging from the gloom, calling a greeting, then vanishing again. Though the road was generally upward, we seemed to be making quite good progress. Ian scored 1,000 bonus points by spotting my waterproof fall into the road on a particularly stygian climb, then 1,000 more by neatly scooping it up and handing it back to me. A signpost indicated 3 miles to Alston, but these proved to be slow going. We could see the lights of the town, but several sharp climbs came between us and them.
Eventually we reached Alston,. And the cobbles, of course. We diverted onto the smooth pavements, and began the steep ascent. The streets were almost deserted. Almost… Three lads were reeling home from a pub. The sight of any form of bike during the hours of darkness always strikes the young British male as irresistibly amusing after a few pints. The sight of three recumbent trikes provoked some more than usually dazzling sallies.
After a little routine jeering, pointing, swearing, and capering (which we ignored), one of the lads decided to moon at us. He singled Ian out, perhaps because his attention was drawn by the Swiftlet’s huge tail fairing (maybe it reminded him of his own huge tail…). Apparently dissatisfied at the lack of reaction, he decided to go for a big finale, and somehow flipped Ian’s trike over before running off with his mates, screeching with laughter at his own wit.
With some difficulty, Ian disengaged himself from the overturned trike. He was rather shaken, but unhurt, and the trike too seemed to be okay. The sooner we were out of Alston the better… We set out on the long slog up Yad Moss. After rather a lot of climbing, a brief descent, and another uphill stretch, the road more or less levelled off. “That wasn’t too bad,” I was telling myself, when we hit the real climb. Erk… Our headlights now picked out striped poles at regular intervals on the verge, to mark the line of the road for snowploughs in winter. There was something mildly hypnotic about the endless procession of poles marching up the hillside. At some point, surely, the procession would begin marching down. I was beginning to have my doubts.
But no, eventually we did reach the descent. Fatigue was clearly beginning to get to me. I was seeing things. More specifically, I was seeing rabbits all over the road. “Wow, look at all those rabbits,” Dave said. Ah, perhaps they weren’t a hallucination after all. They may have looked like rabbits, but they displayed the death-wish of lemmings, jinking about in the road then swerving abruptly into our path as we hurtled down the pass. This may be a good strategy when fleeing a predator, but is at best mediocre when faced with three recumbent trikies with warmth, food, and sleep uppermost in what remains of their minds. The descent felt like a computer game that had sprung from the brain of a particularly deranged programmer: Squash a fluffy bunny and score bonus points… Rabbits apart, the road was deserted. I tore down the dotted line (in Dave’s words), with frequent high-speed swerves to avoid having to clean fur and bits of bunny from the transmission.
I’d remembered Sheila’s tip about looking out for the phone box opposite the youth hostel, thus was able to miss out all the anxious peering at every building on the descent that was a feature of this bit of EL 1997 for me. Shivering on the verge of hypothermia after the descent, we parked the trikes down among the cars again and stumbled up the stony path. Ian had now definitely decided to opt out at the 800 km point, and was intending to have a lie-in. Dave and I agreed to rendezvous at first light.
With fox-like cunning, somewhat reinforced by the fact that there were no beds available at the moment, I decided to have a shower before going to sleep in order to avoid the early morning rush (actually, the slightly later morning rush). In the shower room I encountered Jeremy Meades, who had started from Harlow. “How’s it going?” I asked, prompting a torrent of words that boiled down to: “Not that well, but we’ll get there.”
By the time I’d showered there was a bed available since some poor misguided sap had been unaccountably keen to get back on the road in the middle of the night. I had three hours of the deep and dreamless, and woke as the sky was lightening. Cautiously, I conducted a routine damage-control assessment. Lungs? OK—I was still breathing, wasn’t I? Legs? OK—I could get down from the top bunk. Brain? I was looking forward to the day—Hmm, possibility of slight damage there…
Lumps and Bumps
Dave turned up at the arranged time, and before long we were setting off in the clear but chilly dawn, which proved even chillier at the speeds the trikes were reaching as we zoomed down the mountain. The Micro and the Windcheetah were closely matched, but Dave seemed to be braking and leaning on bends that I could just zip through. Maybe our personal peril sensors were set differently. On the uphill bits we chatted about life, the universe, and everything (with particular reference to recumbent trikes). Heading southwards, this stage was as I’d remembered it: quick and easy.
I spotted the only mistake on the route sheet at the turn near Melsonby. This had been a T junction when I was heading north. The route sheet also described it as a T junction on the way back south. This didn’t compute, even after 660 km. But I recognised the junction, and the place name on the signpost and distance since the last turn were further confirmation: We went left, T or no T.
The T that wasn’t soon led to tea that was. We had the day’s second breakfast at the Barton truckstop. Cereal, poached eggs and tomatoes on toast, milk, tea… Mmmm, gloopy. Dave was beginning to be conscious of a tender achilles, but this was no problem, surely. The sun was shining, and we’d done all the hills now, hadn’t we?
Things were uneventful at first once we got back on the road. It was beginning to get pretty hot. We toasted the halfway point of the ride in isotonic sports drink—water had long since become too boring to contemplate. On the approach to Sowerby there were a few uprights to be chased and dropped. As we left the town we encountered Ian Hennessey, who was unusually taciturn. Four Italians, with Harlow frame numbers, whirred past, head down in team time trial formation, and sailed stylishly past the next turn on the route. We turned left and chatted on. The Italians whirred past again, still in formation.
Ian announced he needed to stop, and would catch us up. This was the cue for the road to develop a nasty attack of the lumps, of the virulent sort that saves the really steep bit for last. Ahead a teenager on a mountain bike was gradually losing momentum, and eventually opted to hike rather than wobble. We hurtled past at a dazzling 6 kph, trying not to wheeze too audibly, and eventually dropped off a small cliff at the entrance to the village of Coxwold. Newburgh Priory was still in the bottom of a steep dip, so again passed in a blur. As we granny-ringed our way up the next climb, making a—slow—beeline for every available patch of shade, Ian caught us, as he had predicted. The severe gradient was quite a test for his 68-inch gear, not to mention his knees. He didn’t seem to be enjoying himself, quite.
Once we turned off the main road there was more climbing, but also (phew!) more shade. Ahead Ian was struggling doggedly up another ramp. Even at this distance I could almost hear the protesting creak of his knees. These hills were also giving Dave’s achilles a hard time. I thought this was the flat bit of the route. Evidently not…
Still, what goes up must—Hoo hoo! Har har! Heh heh heh heh!—come down. To the annoyance of the BMW that I saw approach in the rear-view mirror as we neared the start of the descent, then dwindle to a speck as gravity hurled the trikes down the road at 70-plus kph.
Almost incredibly, the food at Hovingham was even better than before. My body was now craving a substantial meal every three hours or so and didn’t much care what it was, but this was more than mere fuel. Over the course of the past two and a bit days I had developed Calculator Eyes, able to glance at a plateful of nosh and instantly compute how far it would take me. But this lunch deserved to be savoured, not just bolted. As M. Michelin says: “Vaut le voyage.”
Dave was rubbing the back of his ankle a bit glumly. It now sported a substantial lump. There were only a few km of Howardian Hills between us and flat ground. He’d be OK if we twiddled up the climbs, surely.
We set off in the hot and humid afternoon, at a gentle pace. Twiddle though I might, Dave was falling back, and clearly was in some pain. Talk provided some distraction—we speculated at length about the smallest car capable of carrying a recumbent trike inside. But even the flatlands provided little relief for Dave, and he was dropping back whenever I hit anything like cruising speed, in a reversal of the situation on day one. He told me to go on. At Stamford Bridge I did.
Without company, the Howden road was even more monotonous that it had been before. But at least, on the recumbent trike, it was just dull. I could lie there in comfort and pedal. I consoled myself with the thought that this road had been physical as well as mental torture in the final stages of my upright York Arrow in 2000, on which a) the bridge over the motorway near Thorne was a highlight, since it permitted a brief freewheel, and b) I recall desperately twiddling then standing and freewheeling for a few metres, just for a break from—aaaaaaargh—sitting and pedalling. At least the kilometres were clicking by reasonably quickly, even if Howden seemed to get no nearer (and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could bottle up the silent scream of boredom in my head). In my tum bag, I recalled, I had a mini-radio. Now was obviously the time to use it…. No, couldn’t be bothered with faffing around. There was sufficient entertainment to be had by trying—and failing—to think of things more boring than the Howden road. Watching paint dry? Pah, not even close… Getting stuck in a lift with a group of trainspotters? Hmm, a bit more like it…
Accordingly, I was delighted to reach Thorne—not perhaps a sentence that has often been written before. I managed to unclip from the pedals at only the second time of asking and sprang lithely to my feet (at any rate in my imagination). First things first, I ate 70 km worth of food of some sort—possibly featuring a baked potato. All I can say with certainty is that it went down and stayed down. Mission accomplished. Then I went out to remove my front m*dg*ards (if you’ll pardon my language), which were both by now somewhat truncated.
Outside the hall I encountered Rob Webb, in a state of some agitation. He was surrounded by a wide and interesting range of small tyres, none of which would fit the front wheel of his Orbit Crystal, which uses the now virtually unobtainable 451 “20 inch” size (available from your friendly local dealer in hen’s teeth between the hours of 3.13 and 3.17 AM every second Thursday whenever there isn’t a full moon in the month). He was almost sure he’d located a bike shop that thought it possibly could have once seen a tyre somewhere that might fit. I stashed my guards in a bag in the hall, with the jerseys and shorts I’d worn during the first 800 km, and gave serious thought to leaving my waterproof with them—the sun was blazing down, and the weather had a settled look. Reluctantly, I concluded that this might be tempting fate. (Needless to say, I never wore the waterproof over the last 600 km, not even for warmth.)
Dave limped in. now with a bump the size of a golf ball on the back of his ankle. The 800 only for him. I sympathised with his disappointment, and was sorry to lose a congenial companion on the southern 600, but he was obviously making the only sensible decision. Before long Ian Hennessey arrived, having somehow contrived, in his usual manner, to leave Hovingham before me but reach Thorne after me though I hadn’t been aware of passing him at any point in between. I suspected he’d been snoring in a field somewhere. He was a bit subdued, and said he wanted to sleep for an hour or so before setting out again. That was okay, I supposed. I’d been intending to trundle on to Thurlby before breaking for the night, but Lincoln would do. There were supposed to be beds there, after all.
We settled on a 45-minute snooze. I stretched out on the floor on my back, and dozed agreeably, drifting in and out of awareness of the pleasant hum of conversation in the room. Forty-five minutes became a little longer, but eventually we emerged blinking into low sun to set out on the easy bit of the ride.
Ian still seemed a little morose, and announced that he’d take things gently for a while. That was fine by me. I chattered away, spouting the kind of nonsense that is second nature after 800 km, or, come to that, 80 km on a bad day. After 5 or 6 km Ian snapped. In a conversational tone that had me thinking at first that he was joking, he said: “Right. That’s it. I’ve had enough. I’m packing.” Sore shoulders and wrists were the reason, not my conversation. No. Really. He headed back to Thorne. Conscious of the long time that I’d spent in Thorne, I set out to reach Lincoln as fast as possible and cranked the trike up to quite a respectable cruising speed.
As a lowland peat moor, Thorne Waste is officially designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. If your Interests are less Special and Scientific, it’s simultaneously bizarre and boring. Bizarre definitely had the edge. The terrain was, scarcely credibly, even flatter than the Howden road, but the tarmac, though fine-grained, was all heaves and billows. Wide and deep ditches flanked the arrow-straight road. There were regular signs to remind drivers that if they drove off the road, they would land in a ditch. (For some reason I had a lurking sense, clearly shared by the local authorities, that people would drive off the road quite regularly, possibly for something to do on a Saturday night.) Occasionally there were stands of rushes rustling in the breeze. More occasionally there was an isolated house. It was all a bit spooky—not so much a landscape, more an exercise in sensory deprivation.
I stomped on the pedals and concentrated on keeping my speed as far above 32 kph as I could be bothered to, gobbling up a couple of small groups along the way. At intervals a dot would appear in the rear-view mirror, and I could then spend an implausibly long time watching the dot gradually grow until it turned into an old Ford Sierra and blatted past trailing a cloud of oil smoke, its exhaust blowing.
Eventually, after a crossroads, a level crossing, and a sharp bend in (fairly) rapid succession—steady on there, not sure I can handle this much excitement—and another long straight bit, I popped out onto the A161. As I charged on towards Misterton (Captain Scarlet and the Mistertons, a voice babbled in my head) a car full of lads drew up alongside. The nearside window wound down. Bearing in mind what had happened in Alston, I braced myself. What was it going to be? A bit of routine jeering? Some form of missile? Nope. Just a series of friendly enquiries. “Is it comfortable? Have you come a long way? Where are you going? Is it hard to push uphill?” Then, with a last shout of “Good luck,” they went on their way. Warmed by the glow of my freshly restored faith in human nature, I pedalled on.
This wasn’t the most scenic bit of the route, I pondered as I rode past an extremely large power station amid vast horizons liberally studded with extremely large power stations. Right on cue, just as I reached a sign pointing the way to Sundown Adventureland, the last glimmer of daylight faded from the sky. I crossed the brightly lit toll bridge across the River Trent, where the attendant in the booth solemnly raised the barrier for me—quite superfluous, since I could have donned a stovepipe hat and still quite happily have zoomed under the barrier when it was down.
By now there wasn’t far to go to Lincoln, and my thoughts were beginning to turn to food (and my legs to jelly—Aha! I could eat my legs). My stomach rumbling, I made a meal of a trifling hill in Eagle, and, teetering on the brink of bonking out, pulled into the control. Where I made three unwelcome discoveries in swift succession: The cafe was closed; the garage was closed; and all the sleeping space was full. The control itself was a small tent in the car park. OK, sulk for 10 seconds, then activate Plan B and continue to Thurlby. However, Plan B required the consumption of 70 km-worth of fuel, and I knew from the route sheet that the next stage was fiddly and extremely rural, thus unlikely to feature takeaways or all-night garages. Exercising my legendary powers of persuasion on the apologetic elderly couple manning the control—actually, I think they couldn’t face the prospect of a grown man crying—I obtained two cheese sarnies and several cups of tea. That should do, surely. I was in Lincolnshire, where any person of above average height wears a hat with a flashing light on top to warn low-flying aircraft (Perhaps a mild exaggeration? On reflection I think not).
Grumpily telling myself it was past my bedtime, I plunged back into the inky lanes, intent on covering as much ground as I could before I succumbed to the usual attack of the dozies. At first the roads were straight, flat, and featureless. Concentrating hard on keeping my cadence in triple figures, I ticked off the kilometres and the instructions on the route sheet. Just after Brandon I caught Dave Stevens, who proved to be the only rider—in fact the only sentient creature—I encountered on this stage. Before long there appeared lights in the sky—not a UFO, but Hough-on-the-Hill, I assumed. Hough’s hill, though not long, was briefly steep enough to require bottom gear. I tentatively revised my mental picture of this part of the country, then revised it again on the B-road climb out of Ancaster. This was odd—I couldn’t recall any hill worthy of the name between Lincoln and Thurlby on the 1997 Edinburgh-London route. Which must mean that this time EL was deliberately shunning the flatlands of the Fens.
On a gentle descent (between one dark, tiny, deserted hamlet with a name ending in -by and another dark, tiny, deserted hamlet with a name ending in -by—just a wild guess) the trike fishtailed alarmingly as the road switched abruptly from smooth tarmac to drifts of gravel,. This sort of thing is disconcerting on the trike, but you stay rubber side down, at least. I hoped any riders following in my tracks on two wheels would be okay.
The dark was so thick I had no impression of what sort of terrain I was riding through Each small hill came as an unwelcome surprise, since it slightly increased the time between me, and food and bed. The downhills were pocked with potholes that I was now too dopy to avoid, but I was still teetering precariously on the right side of a full-blown attack of the dozies. It occurred to me that if the route sheet had been anything less than perfect, this leg would have been a nightmare.
It was getting on for 4am by the time I reached the control at Thurlby. Despite the hour, Gerry Boswell and crew were efficient and welcoming. I was soon wolfing down pasta and chatting with Robert Watson, whom I’d expected to see riding his XL rather than helping at a control. Then I had a quick shower (Luxury: Three nights on the road, three showers!) before managing to haul myself into a top bunk for a few hours’ sleep.
I didn’t need my alarm call to wake up. Birds tweeting busily in the garden and sunlight on the window were enough to rouse me. I walked carefully downstairs—it’s advisable to treat tricky stuff like steps, kerbs, and carpet edges with due respect after 967 km—and ate a large, eggy breakfast while talking trikes with Pat Kenny (upright in his case, recumbent in mine, of course). Refreshed and revitalised, or so I thought, I set off for Longstowe.
Though the controls remained the same, the route between Thurlby and Longstowe was almost totally different from EL 1997. After the long, straight, flat stretch to West Deeping, I went off route. Deliberately, I think. The route sheet, as always, was a model of clarity and accuracy. Unfortunately the same could not be said of my thought processes. I pedalled along, humming in an abstracted kind of way. The route sheet indicated I should go right on a left-hand bend. “I should take that right turn,” I thought, without much urgency, as I followed the road round to the left. “I really should have taken that turn,” I thought dopily as I glided down through the village of Helpston. “What am I doing here? I should have turned right a couple of km back up the road,” I mused foggily as I waited for the barrier on the level crossing to rise. “I’m definitely going wrong now,” I told myself as I rode across the rails. “Yes, no question about it, I’m definitely off route.” Pedal pedal pedal. “How about turning back? If you insist…”
Even though I got back on track soon enough, there was still a pea-souper inside my head. The sunshine began to burn off the mental fog in Wansford, which was pretty enough to register even in my enfeebled state. Gradually I perked up. The road was smooth, the sky was a vast blue dome, and fields of wheat glowed gold as far as the eye could see in every direction. Which was rather a long way. About 25 km after setting out on this leg, I was now awake. I celebrated by stopping amid a sea of rustling corn to shed leg-warmers and arm-warmers and apply sunscreen. DAAAve Lewis and Jim Churton rode by, looking offensively fresh and frisky.
The route snaked pleasingly over low hills. Where had all this sky come from? This part of the country appeared to have been filmed in widescreen, and I had the best seat in the cinema. The sun blazed down with such intensity my vertebrae seemed to be softening like wax. At any rate my neck had become weirdly wobbly, so I leaned back on the head rest and half-closed my eyes against the glare. Mmm, this was extremely comfortable. In Great Gidding there was a brief plague of giant 4WDs. Evidently there is still an American presence at Alconbury air base.
It seems I passed DAAAve and Jim in Kimbolton. Later they accused me of wilfully ignoring them, but in truth I didn’t spot them as I was gazing in amazement at the succession of elegant and well proportioned buildings in the town and wondering how come I’d never so much as heard of it. There were queues of traffic in the high street in St. Neots, but I scooted through, leaving the standard trike wake of laughter and consternation.
Still squinting in the dazzling sun, I pedalled on. There was a police speed trap at the entrance to Abbotsley. Hang on, that wasn’t a policeman—it was a scarecrow in a PC’s uniform. And it wasn’t a radar gun but a sink plunger. On the other side of the road another scarecrow with long blonde locks and a come-hither expression was leaning alluringly against a telegraph post, hitching up her short skirt. A little further on there was a workman scarecrow, in donkey jacket and yellow hard hat. A parachutist scarecrow dangled from a tree. A decapitated scarecrow in a long dress stood by the roadside, her head tucked beneath her arm. A scarecrow in waders was fishing in a pond…. The village was otherwise deserted. What a strange place… I was glad I wasn’t encountering it for the first time in the dark. After 1,000-plus km I’m capable of hallucinating quite effectively without this sort of external stimulus.
As I was scoffing pasta at the control in Longstowe DAAAve and Jim turned up and announced complacently that they’d stopped in Kimbolton to book a B&B for the night. They were riding briskly through the day to get to their night’s halt in time to have a pint or two before turning in. This sounded far too civilised… I decided to settle for trying to get back to Thurlby for the night.
There were about 60 km to go to Harlow, again on a largely new route. After Orwell, according to the route sheet, I would pass a monument marking the Greenwich meridian. Idly I wondered what form a monument to an arbitrary line on the map would take. The answer seemed to be: a picnic table, albeit quite a superior sort of picnic table. As I negotiated speed bumps in Melbourn I was overtaken by a scarecrow on a bike, but on closer inspection it proved to be not some further prank by the residents of Abbotsley but the legendary George Berwick (in 2001 George ventured south from Scotland to ride Shawn Shaw’s equally legendary Porkers 400. Not content with riding the event itself, he rode the route a day or two before, and was later heard to express disappointment when he found that Shawn had removed The Lane Whose Name Must Never Be Spoken from this year’s version, because of Foot and Mouth restrictions. But I digress…)
It was on the undulating ride along the B-road from Barkway that I became aware of the creak. First of all it creaked only on the climbs. Which was fair enough, since I was creaking on the climbs too. Then it branched out into creaking the whole time. Which was also fair enough, since I had done likewise. But I was slightly concerned that something mechanical was about to go “ping,” irretrievably. Torpid with the heat (and 1100 km on the road), I pondered sluggishly. There was something familiar about the creak. Aha! It was the sound of a Schlumpf Speed Drive bottom bracket gearbox asking politely for lubrication. No need to worry: I could give it a squirt of something slippery in Harlow.
Almost to the last, the approach to Harlow was remarkably scenic, even if the drivers I encountered were getting more and more mindlessly aggressive and swaggering with every (creaking) turn of the pedals. This was simply a sign that I was now, gulp, well and truly in Essex. I kept a wary eye on the rear-view mirror and turned the peril sensors up to maximum. The last three or four miles before the control were fairly hectic. But, though heavy, at least the traffic heading for Harlow was moving. In the opposite direction there was a stationary queue of vehicles.
Harlow control seemed a bit of a hovel, more hostel for the homeless than youth hostel. I didn’t care. I was just glad to be not pedalling and out of the sun. As usual, long-distance riding was tending to depress my IQ and social skills. An episode of Mastermind pitting me against, say, a small jar of seawater filled with plankton would have been a close-run thing (my money would have been on the plankton). On top of that, I seemed to have temporary custody of Mick Jagger’s lips. Despite liberal applications of sunscreen (presumably washed off by the vast quantities of liquid I’d been swilling down), my mouth was swollen and rubbery. I gazed vacantly at the menu on the wall until Liz Creese told me what I wanted to eat. I ate. I drank numerous glasses of squash. I dozed. I thought I’d better wait for rush hour to subside before dicing with Essex Man again. I dozed some more. I woke to find the room full of Lolitas. How unexpected… I dozed again. Then—hwwbraaagh!—I forced myself into wakefulness, remembered the creak, and armed myself with a can of teflon lube, courtesy of Tim Wainright.
The Lolitas or someone (the Humberts?) had been interfering with the trike, and the bars were now more or less horizontal instead of vertical. Muttering imprecations that were surprisingly elaborate for my current place on the evolutionary scale, I fixed the bars, removed the blanking screw on the crank spider, and squirted lube into the Speed Drive until it dribbled out. Then I dribbled out into the road. As I set off, a ghastly rictus playing about my features, Tim took a photo. It came out blurry, which is pretty much how I was feeling at this point.
Fortunately there were no traffic queues on the way out of Harlow, and I was soon back on quiet lanes, with the sun slanting low through the trees. The Speed Drive was now silent again, and I could push as hard as I liked on the climbs. Which, oddly enough, was not very. Sporadically I encountered riders heading for Harlow—I remember meeting Sheila’s happy group along the road to Barkway—and gave them a cheerful grin, which Mick Jagger’s mouthparts turned into a rubber-lipped leer. I paused at the junction with the A505 to switch lights on and don a windproof jerkin against the chill of the evening. The placenames around here were definitely a bit on the strange side. I rode through Meldreth (one of the more obscure and ill-tempered Old Testament prophets, obviously) to Shepreth (no doubt about it, a deadly livestock disease). I saw a rider pedal past the turn for Orwell despite my warning shouts.
It was about ten when I arrived back into Longstowe for another helping of the afternoon’s pasta (not that there was anything wrong with that). I was in a dilemma—there was no bed available in Longstowe, but I didn’t quite fancy tackling the 90 km to Thurlby. Sixty km would have been okay, but in my present state 90 would mean engaging in all sorts of aberrant and uncomfortable behaviour, dozing in phone boxes, riding into ditches, loudly singing cheesy pop songs (off key), going off route, then arriving in Thurlby just before dawn able only to grunt and point. Though not both at the same time.
The groupe G. Hanna (minus Danny) were at the control, in high spirits now they had the Harlow finish in their sights. Their luggage was chinking mysteriously. They’d taken the precaution of stocking up on derrrrrrink in order to toast their successful completion of EL, but were now giving serious consideration to toasting their successful near-completion of EL. I could hear the sound of snapping willpower.
Just as I was contemplating flaking out in the main hall, one of the team of helpers told me there was some space in a side room. No mattress though. This was an insignificant consideration. I was soon stretched out on my back in a changing room occupied by several shadowy forms: snoring man who whistled through his teeth while exhaling, person with rustly space blanket and restless legs, man shouting in Mongolian in his sleep. I was asleep (snoring and shouting Mongolian) the instant my head hit the floor.
Randonneurs and Rubbish
It was the draught of cold air as Mongolian man opened the door that woke me. There was a glimmer of light in the sky. I rose creakily to my feet and lurched out with the intention of having a shower, but the temperature in the shower room changed my mind. I settled for a bracing wash. Bracing as in: Brrrrr. Peering blearily into a mirror, I found I had my lips back.
After a breakfast of pasta, which, I seemed to recall, followed a lunch, supper, and midnight snack of pasta, I emerged into the chill of a misty dawn. Rob Webb was outside, fiddling with a radio before setting off for Harlow. Eventually he’d managed to locate a suitable tyre, and was now fretting slightly about lost time, though he was clearly on track to finish comfortably within the time limit. It was too cold to hang about chatting. I pedalled off, my teeth going like castanets.
I was disappointed to find that most of the scarecrows had vanished from Abbotsley, though the policeman and his lady friend were still there. But it was a beautiful morning. Mist was hovering over the fields beyond St. Neots. The canopies of the trees had no visible connection with the supporting trunks. After a while I began to encounter Harlow-bound riders who had left Thurlby that morning, among them Danny Fisher and a large bunch of Italians, including the rider on a Brompton (1,400 km on a Brompton—now there was a scary thought). I was getting into the groove of meeting and greeting. Over the next hour or two numerous “randonneurs” were puzzled to receive an effusive hello from a strange apparition on a recumbent trike, among them a bemused man in a suit commuting on a mountain bike, an old lady on a small-wheel shopper, and—this is the really embarrassing one—a pile of rubbish by the roadside.
It was clear to me, partly from my evident inability to distinguish in broad daylight between, say, a human being (even a human being 1,200 km into a ride) and a random heap of black plastic bags and cardboard boxes, that I would need very little encouragement to go spectacularly off route. If I couldn’t handle the distinction between organic and inorganic, that between left and right was definitely going to pose problems. So after every turn on the route sheet I tried to memorise the next instruction. (The operative word in the preceding sentence is: “tried.”) I made a brave attempt to overshoot the right turn for Helpston—the long straight road leading somewhere else entirely looked extremely tempting—but a couple of stubborn synapses were still riding shotgun. After crossing the A16 in West Deeping I caught another cycle commuter on a mountain bike, who was so surprised at being passed by a gibbering loon on a recumbent trike that he almost veered into the ditch.
Thurlby was in cheerful chaos. The riders were smashed. Gerry and the other controllers were smashed. Even Tim the dog was smashed. The eggs, on the other hand, were scrambled. Harlow finishers were running into Thorne finishers, and everybody was initially intent on gobbling down as many calories as possible in the shortest possible time, then, for some reason, would forget the urgency and sit around chatting. The picnic tables on the patio were covered in teapots, half-empty cereal packets, dirty dishes, clean dishes. Time to go with the flow. I found a cleanish bowl, some muesli, some milk, a fairly clean mug (as long as you didn’t look too closely), and some tea, and sat down. There were quite a few Seattle riders at the control, Kent Peterson among them, and there was much discussion as to whether Boston-Montreal-Boston, Paris-Brest-Paris, or Edinburgh-London was the hardest ride. The consensus among those who had ridden all three was that EL was the hardest. Certainly the new EL route seemed to me more challenging than PBP, and much more attractive than the 1997 route. Also the need to follow a route sheet rather than arrows gave EL an added dimension of intellectual challenge, ranging from the trivial (the first day) to the substantial (now).
A Finnish rider reeled into the control, the side of his head swollen and covered in blood after he’d skidded and crashed on a gravelly corner. He was determined to continue, but seemed confused and shocked. Gerrry tried hard to persuade him to see a doctor, but he refused and staggered off to lie down on a bench under a tree. After a while he stood up and immediately collapsed again. Gerry could see his efforts at persuasion were of little use, so inveigled some of the American riders into escorting the Finn on his way towards Harlow. (He made it…)
As randonneurs all around lowered sensitive portions of their anatomy gingerly onto their saddles, with many a wince and muted yelp, I flopped cheerfully back into the seat of the Micro. Not far to go now—a bit of a pity really, since nothing seemed to be hurting, not even my brain.
The lanes between Thurlby and Lincoln proved easier to negotiate in daylight, and less hilly too now I could see them, for some reason. I ambled from one hamlet to another, occasionally encountering more Harlow riders and musing on the great lost statistics of my EL. How many cups of tea had I drunk? How many eggs had I eaten? How many times had I changed gear? How many villages with names ending in -by had I ridden through or seen signs for? Confusingly (and I was willing to admit I was easily confused by now), in the light of day Great Humby proved rather smaller than Little Humby. Even more confusingly, one of the three houses (I counted) that made up Great Humby—an ordinary semi-detached villa—had an old-style semaphore railway signal in its garden, which was fenced off from the road by level-crossing gates.
On the approach to a SO:X on a long straight road near Ancaster I saw a Harlow rider reach the junction, pause in confusion, and turn left even though he could presumably see—well, more accurately, could presumably have seen, had his eyes still been connected to his brain—another EL rider straight ahead. Namely me. By the time I got to the junction he was out of earshot, at any rate for the kind of yell I was able to come up with. Another good deed thwarted. I passed through Carlton Scroop (ah yes, another of the legendary stars of the silent screen who failed to make the transition to the talkies…) and soon spotted a couple of familiar figures approaching: Pedals and Norman Lazarus, both showing every sign of enjoying themselves. Pedals was possibly the only rider on EL with a bigger chainring than me, but he’s a proper cyclist: His giant chainring was driving a 700c fixed wheel; mine was propelling a Brompton-sized wheel through a variety of wimpish gears. On the other hand, of course, he could honk. And, on the other other hand, by now he could probably do little else.
I checked into the Lincoln tent—I’m sorry, control—which was still manned by the same elderly couple. Hats off to them! They did a tremendous job in difficult circumstances. I was pleased to see the Little Chef was open. (Yet another of those once-in-a-lifetime sentences… Pause for a moment and savour it.) Humming faintly, in more senses than one, I strode in and, following instructions, Please Waited To Be Seated. I was offered a choice between Smoking and No Smoking, but not between Humming and No Humming, which was fortunate, since an honest answer would have been embarrassing. The waitress was flummoxed when I ordered two glasses of milk and two toasted teacakes, and looked round for my companion. It’s OK, I explained, I’m a cyclist—I’m eating for two. A wall-mounted TV was gibbering away to itself. I gazed at it transfixed, temporarily a Trobriand islander who had led a more than usually sheltered existence. Richard McTaggart came over, formally introduced himself, and shook hands. Between us, my nonexistent companion and I made short work of the teacakes and milk, and I soon set out on (cue fanfare) the final leg.
If the weather had been humid before, it was very sultry now. I rode along in a cloud of mild euphoria and (less pleasantly) itchy thunderflies. Shortly after leaving Lincoln I exchanged waves with the Harlow-bound Jack Eason, accompanied by the Slanndem, Jeremy Meades, and Roger Philo. I saw my last southbound rider near the toll bridge over the Trent: a grinning bearded man on a Trice Explorer, I think. In Sturton le Steeple a small boy on a mountain bike wanted to race up a small hill. I just managed to win the sprint.
After a brief spell on the A161, it was back to the empty, dead straight, dead flat roads south of Thorne, which seemed even more featureless now. I tried looking off to one side for a while then looking ahead again, in the vain hope that the copse of trees in the distance might now seem a bit closer. It didn’t. I wondered how far I could ride without touching the steering at all. Quite a long way… There was no hurry, which was just as well, given the speed I was now travelling. I was inside the last 20 km now, and, as on PBP, I was starting to stretch the experience out. It seemed that several lifetimes elapsed before I reached the end of the lane to Sandtoft. Two hundred metres on the A18 were an abrupt awakening. I was honked at three times: Once for having the temerity to turn onto the road when there was a car in sight, once for daring to signal right and move into position to make the turn, and once more for (bad) luck. With relief, I returned the lanes for the last few minutes’ pedalling. With 2 km to go, my Scottish twig fell out and the computer dangled free. Wonderful: planned obsolescence in a roadside repair.
Feeling quietly elated, I rolled into Thorne in the late afternoon. But there was one last question to be answered. Could I get out of the seat of a trike as low as the Micro after 1,416 km? The riders relaxing in the sun outside the control eyed me with lively interest, obviously asking themselves the same question and silently placing their bets. I took a deep breath, unclipped from the pedals, and stood up. Rather to my surprise…
EL 1997 was a wonderful experience, but EL 2001 had the edge. The southern part of the route was vastly improved, the route sheet was almost impeccable, and the decision to offer two different starts seemed to work out very well. Heartfelt thanks to all the organisers and helpers—and roll on 2005!