The longest ride

This is Andrew's training diary for the London-Edinburgh-London event to be held in July 2009: the biggest cycling challenge he's ever undertaken.

Staged once every four years, 'LEL' is the longest organised audax cycle event in Europe. The 620 entrants, from 27 nations, must ride from London to Edinburgh and back in a maximum time of 116 hours, or just under five days. The total distance is 1400 km or about 875 miles.

The 2009 edition is the sixth staging of 'LEL', organised by the long distance cycling organisation Audax UK. It is modelled on the similar Paris-Brest-Paris ride, an event that is older than the Tour de France itself. For more information about 'LEL', use the links on the right of the page.

UPDATE 1 August 2009
Success! Despite atrocious weather conditions, I completed the ride, finishing last night in a time of 105 hours 40 minutes. Full ride report to follow.

LATEST ENTRY - 19 July 2009
My final build-up ride of 209 km is over, the training programme is complete. A quiet week ahead as I rest and prepare my bike and kit for the big one.
One week to go to LEL.


30 September 2008

I'm 42 today and conscious that since I become a full-time councillor, my riding has been limited to some touring and the odd 100 km 'audax' ride. I'm also expecting to have a lot more time on my hands in the next few months as I'm on the verge of resigning from holding Islington's Finance portfolio. My frustration at not having time to cycle has set me thinking (dreaming?) about taking on a serious challenge. And London-Edinburgh-London springs naturally to mind. It's held only every four years, so if I don't attempt it in 2009, will I ever have the physical ability again?

October 2008
Rachel and I do three 100 km audaxes to close the season, the first real riding since our tour across France back in May. Meanwhile I'm reading past ride accounts about LEL, including one or two cyclists who maintain that with careful preparation it can be done without years of experience of riding ultra-long distances.

November 2008
I'm still hesitating in the face of a challenge that would be off the scale compared to any distance I have previously ridden. Until now I've regarded those who wanted to ride such long events as slightly I about to join their ranks? Meanwhile entry places are filling up fast, with riders from as far afield as Italy and Japan. Finally the application form is the post.

December 2008
My entry is confirmed, I have rider number 530. The downside is that as a relatively late entrant I will have a 2pm start time, meaning more riding at night than I would ideally prefer. I start spending some time in the gym.

January 2009
Temparatures are low and I'm concentrating on indoor work and circuits of Victoria Park, with some short rides of around 50 km out in the Hertfordshire countryside.

26 January
Knocked off my town bike by a black cab! Fortunately I suffer nothing but a few bruises, but I'm off serious riding for about ten days.

February 2009
The coldest start to February for years means my training schedule is off to a slow start and gym work is poor compensation for getting out on the road - but there is simply too much snow and ice around on many days to feel confident about riding safely.

28 February: 'Braziers Run' 106 km Audax
First Audax event of the year, the 'Braziers Run' from Henham, near Stansted. Mild weather at last and Rachel joins me for an enjoyable 106 km ride in the rutted lanes of Essex and Hertfordshire.

7 March: 'Springtime' 204 km Audax
A moment of truth today - my first 200 km event since 2006. Rachel rides with me for the first 100 km loop out to Coggeshall, a pretty village behind Braintree, and back to the HQ at Henham. Physically the ride goes well and I'm in good shape. Organisationally, it's not great - Rachel punctures in the early stages and I go off course twice, adding about 15 km to the set distance of 204 km. Riding in the dark for the last two hours is not pleasant given the potholed state of the lanes between Royston and Henham. Finishing time is nearly 12 hours, which is disappointing, but I've passed a significant barrier today.

14 March: 'Up the Uts' 160 km Audax
A third trip to the club huts at Henham for the suitably named 'Up the Uts' audax. I set off confident about the shorter distance after last week, but trouble unexpectedly strikes after about 50 km and I'm suffering from pain just above the left knee. Backed by a 17mph wind, we enjoy a fast blast out to the control point at Stisted (72 km) in a bunch of riders from the Sudbury club. Turning back west into the wind it becomes hard work to reach HQ. The last loop of 42 km is a real struggle for me, I'm hardly able to stand out of the saddle due to the sore knee.

22 March
A stressful week - two days off the bike, worrying that the knee problem might be serious. Research on the internet identifies about eight possible problems. But by midweek I'm riding again. This weekend was positive - an 80 km ride on Saturday north of Huntingdon. Then a 135 km recce of the Thurlby to Washingborough stage of LEL, through the flatlands of Lincolnshire. This should have been a pleasant ride through the daffodil bulbs fields but was hard work going northbound against the wind.

28 March: 'The Dean' 307 km Audax
I'm so nervous before my first '300' that I can barely sleep more than a couple of hours. Not the best way to start my longest event yet. Up at 4am to drive to a freezing service station car park on the edge of Oxford for a 6am off. The weather is difficult, with wind, hail and sleet at various points on the ride, but it is not nearly as bad as forecast. Sections of the ride through the Cotswolds and Forest of Dean are stunningly beautiful. My mental target is an 18 hour finish, and I'm slightly ahead of that schedule throughout, only slowing through the final 90 km which is ridden in the dark over the Marlborough and Lambourn Downs. Roll through the centre of partying Oxford (it is Saturday night) to reach the finish control at one minute to midnight.

Andrew Cornwell outside Bodiam Castle 5 April 2009 Credit: Rachel Cooke

5 April
Rachel and I enjoy a great day out in Kent and Sussex, visiting Sissinghurst and Bodiam castles (Bodiam pictured above). Terrific scenery and a surprising amount of climbing in the lanes of the Weald. 122 km covered.

11 April: 'The Cambrian' 208 km Audax
A seriously hilly event this, but thanks to glorious weather and exceptional scenery one of my most enjoyable days on the bike despite the tough climbs. Rachel and I set off from Leominster to ride through the Radnor Forest to Llanidloes and over the pass to Machynlleth. A cracking 10 km descent with stunning mountain views on all sides, but then payback comes since this is an 'out and back' route and those 10 km need to be re-climbed. I am very pleased with a finish time of about twelve and a half hours - and the most climbing I have done in a single day.

26 April
Another 'National Trust' tour: we ride out from Knebworth near Stevenage to Wimpole Hall, close to Cambridge. 117 km distance. Half worried that it's all a bit too enjoyable at the moment!

2-3 May: 'Severn Across' 407 km Audax
The next hurdle: my first '400'. Arguably the most difficult distance because the time limit of 27 hours and the usual 6am start does not really allow for a proper rest. Off to a good start as I rode the first three hours in a nice bunch at a faster average than usual - about 27kph to the first control at Woodstock. Then it was through the Cotswolds to Tewkesbury for lunch, before tackling the climbs of the Forest of Dean. Turnaround at Chepstow to cross the Severn for a night ride back to Chalfont St Peter. Benign weather conditions, and a slightly flatter profile than the similar course on 'The Dean' meant I was through 300 km in 15 hours which was pleasing. The last section was more of a struggle as I made few tactical errors, including stopping for too long at the Membury Services control and going off course in the dark lanes approaching Henley. Arrived back at first light in Chalfont St Peter, where I was amazed to find that while 20 riders finished ahead of me, there were another 14 behind. Two hours kip on the floor of the community centre, and then the first train back to London - exhausted but elated.

4 May: ECCA Festival 106 km Audax
Treating this as a 'recovery' ride, I put 154 km on the clock today, including riding out and back from Sawbridgeworth station to the start at High Easter, near Chelmsford. In comparison with recent efforts, it was a gentle trot through the Essex lanes, many of the picture postcard villages being familiar. On my audax machine with a large rack bag, I felt a little out of place in among large groups of club riders on stripped down carbon frames, but I was pleasantly surprised at how many of them I passed on the climbs. The village hall HQ was packed with cyclists undertaking a wide range of disciplines including time trials and map reading competitions as part of this bank holiday festival of Essex cycling. A relaxed end to a gruelling weekend.

10 May
After last weekend's efforts, a gentle ride today with about 25 others from the Central London CTC. We take the train to Rye House, near Hertford and meander through the lanes to an early pub lunch stop at Furneaux Pelham. Just 65 km.

24 - 25 May: Midlands Mesh 200 km permanents
Rachel and I travel to Cambridge to stay with my Dad, our base for back-to-back 200 km 'DIY' rides under Audax rules. On Sunday we head out early towards Newmarket and continue on flat, wooded roads towards lunch in Diss. The afternoon controls are in the pretty thatched village of Woolpit and Saffron Walden before a fast blast back into Cambridge (230 km). For the bank holiday Monday, we're on an even more pancake-flat course, up through the airbase towns of Mildenhall and Lakeheath to Swaffham, where we lunch outside in the market square, and then into the Fens west of Downham Market. The roads along the top of dykes are mainly empty, but the downside of the flat lands is the complete lack of let-up: freewheeling becomes a rare luxury. It is a tiring two days, but the weather is perfect, good training for me and Rachel achieves her first 200 km rides. (215 km for the Monday).

31 May
Central London CTC again, this time we set off from Highbury Corner and head up the A1 for Potters Bar. Morning coffee stop at the Panshanger Aerodrome cafe which we share with private pilots and a posse of Harley bikers. The ride breaks up after lunch with some heading for Stevenage station, but half a dozen of us choose to ride back in along the A1000 and A1. 130 km for the round trip.

5 June
Reconnaissance of the North Yorkshire part of the LEL route: train to York and then a 100 km ride along the Vale of York to Scotch Corner, from where I plan to start a 600 km ride the following day. An almost entirely flat and lightly trafficked course is the good news. The bad news (on the day) was the weather - I spent the last two hours in heavy rain on sometimes flooded roads.

6-7 June 2009: 'Border Raid' 607 km Audax
A monumental ride in every sense. From Aldbrough St John near Darlington, about 20 hardy souls make a 6am start in rainy conditions. We are heading to Barnard Castle to make the crossing of the Pennines over Yad Moss, the second highest road in England. Conditions are appalling on the top for June, and after a freezing descent a couple of riders decide to abandon in the cobbled market town of Alston, just 70 km into the event. We continue to Longtown near Carlisle, then the roads begin to dry on entering Scotland. The ride takes in some of the best scenery in the Borders: the rolling roads through Wauchope Forest (with a series of stiff climbs and fine views of the Cheviots), Jedburgh with its abbey, the cobbled market square of Kelso, Scott's View near Melrose, then along the tranquil banks of the Tweed to Peebles. The night section to Moffat climbs almost imperceptibly along the deserted A701 past the source of the Tweed, before a screaming drop into Moffat and a return to habitation. I snatch three and a half hours sleep at the control point of Annandale Water services on the M74 (337 km and 18 hours into the ride).

The second day is a continual battle against the clock and the wind. I put my head down to get to Longtown with minutes to spare before the control, snatch a sandwich for breakfast in a petrol station in Carlisle, before heading along the A6 up Shap summit. A complete soaking is endured over the top again, and difficult crosswinds on the descent: my brake pads are disappearing rapidly. But contrary to all expectations, we don't spend the next ten hours in the rain. Instead the enemy is a vicious easterly wind funnelling up the dales. After a struggle to climb up Garsdale against the wind, the reward should be a long freewheel down Wensleydale. But in fact its necessary to pedal most of the way down, such is the headwind. I spend two and a half hours leg sapping hours without leaving the saddle to make the control in Leyburn within the time limits. There's no time to appreciate the series of picturesque villages along the River Ure. Doubts and depression about finishing nearly set in at this point (523 km), but just in time the road turns south away from the wind, surfaces improve and the flatter territory is entered. A quick early evening feed stop in Ripon, and the final 50 km leg back to Aldbrough is taken at very moderate pace. I finish just after 9pm with nearly an hour to spare: only just behind a group of very experienced riders from the VC167 club, which gives extra satisfaction.

My longest ride. First 600 km. Completion of a 'Super Randonneur' audax series of 200, 300, 400 and 600 km events in a season. Most challenging weather conditions. Most metres climbed on a ride. This is a weekend full of personal milestones and the moment when all the training earlier in the year begins to feel worth it.

Yorkshire bike Credit: Andrew Cornwell
A big thank you to our friends Adam and Natalie who looked after me so well at their lovely house in nearby Bedale after the ride (above).

8-19 June
A difficult recovery period after the exertions of the 600km ride - energy levels are bouncing up and down and I manage just two training rides in a fortnight.

20-21 June: 'Asparagus and Strawberries' 415 km Audax
A grand tour of East Anglia, setting off from Maningtree near Colchester at the civilised hour of 10.00am. We start the run through historic Hadleigh, ride up to the Norfolk Broads and cross on the Reedham ferry. A long flat section through to Wells on the north Norfolk coast for a fish and chip supper.

Bikes at Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk Credit: Andrew Cornwell
Early evening at Wells-next-the Sea: the rain has cleared for a fine view from the quayside.

Then it is a nightime main road bash south through Swaffham, Brandon and Mildenhall to Newmarket where the town is partying. A disciplined bunch of 12 riders forms and we maintain a fast pace in the dark.

Unfortunately the group splinters in the last 80 km after Saffron Walden and I find myself riding into the dawn alone. I lose time finding my way in the lanes around the Stour valley. Finish in a deserted Manningtree at 6.45am - two and a quarter hours faster than my previous time for a 400 km ride. That is very satisfying, though partly a reflection of a flatter course and some strong group riding.

28 June: 'Fairies Flattest Possible' 309 km Audax
There are times on these long rides when we all admit to each other than what we're undertaking is completely mad. This ride was certainly one of them: a 2.00am start in a village hall in Kent. A fast chase along deserted main roads in the dark - A20, A259 and A28. Club riders racing each other through the dawn mist on Romney Marsh, disturbing the sheep. Back to HQ for breakfast after 100 km. Then a hilly few hours through the Weald, despite the description, this ride had some lumpy sections. Lunch at Dungeness in the shadow of the nuclear power station, baffled day-trippers on the miniature steam railway confronted with sleep-deprived, smelly cyclists who'd been on the road eleven hours by then. Slogging on tiny lanes across the windy marsh again, with thunder clouds gathering. Being overtaken by fresher 200 km riders.  Trying not to fall asleep during the final wooded section.

I did it for the night ride training - and despite the strange hours, it was a success: my fastest times at 100 km, 200 km and 300 km distances. The organisation was superb, thanks to the organising club, the San Fairy Ann CC (founded 1922). Controls in all the right places, and fine bread pudding and bacon rolls. Mad all the same.

12 July: 'Surburban Breakout' 105 km Audax
With less than one month to go, I'm entering the 'taper down' period of my training. That has meant ten days off the bike altogether following the 300km ride, then a couple of light training rides of 60-70km. Then this event, a regular fixture for me as it is the only audax ride in the national calendar where I can actually ride to the start (East Finchley in north London). Its a pleasant enough day out on familiar roads, round in five hours, before rushing home to catch TV coverage of the Tour de France.

19 July: 'Six Counties' 209 km Audax
My final preparatory ride. It is not a lot of fun, with strong winds and periods of heavy rain. The route from Hertford spends the first 80 km meandering through the north-west London suburbs and we spend too much time negotiating main roads, speed humps and mini-roundabouts. As we finally get into the Bedfordshire countryside I pick up a mechanical and spend the last 100 km without the use of my small chainring, which makes the ride even tougher. Gravel litters the country lanes of Hertfordshire and after heavy rain there is more standing water than I've seen on a ride for a long time - we have to negotiate one flood on foot. Still, after a hard day's work I'm happy to complete in a time of just over ten hours. No more rides now, a week's rest and time spent preparing kit and bike for the big one.

26 July: London-Edinburgh-London 1400 km Audax
Ride report to follow....

Waiting to start the 407 km (253 mile) 'Severn Across' audax, 2 May 2009. Credit: Rachel Cooke