London-Edinburgh-London

Ride report published 30 August 2009
By Andrew Cornwell

The 6th running of the London-Edinburgh-London, the UK's flagship long distance cycling event, will go down as an epic - mainly due to the atrocious weather conditions endured by the field of 530 riders.

To the challenge of completing the 1400 km (875 mile) distance were added the battles with brutal winds, torrential rain, potential hypothermia and overwhelmed sleeping stations and control points.

This is my ride report: I finished in a time of 105 hours 40 minutes, well inside the cut-off point of 116 hours.

Thousands of images, film clips and blog posts have already been posted by participants - use the links on the left of this page to view some of them.

London-Edinburgh-London 2009: riders prepare for the start outside Lee Valley Youth Hostel, HQ for the event. Credit: Andrew Cornwell
Riders prepare for the start outside Lee Valley Youth Hostel, HQ for the event.


Day 1: Sunday 26 July
216 km Cheshunt to Washingborough (Lincoln)

Just getting to the start line has been a huge effort: eight months of hard training, plenty of research, reconnaisance rides on sections of the course and over 5,000 km already ridden in 2009.

After the chaotic scenes at yesterday's registration, with hundreds of riders queuing for hours to sign in and collect their numbers and cards, the HQ at the Lee Valley Youth Hostel is relatively calm. I complete my own sign in process in under five minutes.

As my starting slot approaches at 1.30 pm,  I join about 80 riders in the Cheshunt station car park (pictured below). A small group of supporters is taking photos of this veritable United Nations of riders. Just as the start tape is about to be cut, a White Van Man pulls into the car park and thinks he will outstare the cyclists into moving, but if you've come all the way from Russia or Australia for this moment, then nothing is going to get in the way, and the driver eventually moves aside.

Riders line up to start the London-Edinburgh-London 2009 at Cheshunt. Credit: Andrew Cornwell

The big peleton quickly splits into smaller groups on the hilly lanes between Cheshunt and Hertford. Nonetheless with excellent weather conditions - dry and a tailwind - as well as the adrenlin of the start, the speed is high. I'm on my 'home roads' and barely have to glance at the routesheet for the first 65 km stage to Gamlingay, which helps keep momentum up. A few clicks out from the control I realise about 30 of us are going to arrive practically together so I speed off the front, working with a handful of serious looking Italian and German riders. They can't stick with my unaccustomed pace and I have the pleasure of dropping them all - the only time in the event I will enjoy this...

Gamlingay is just a feedstop on outward leg and the catering isn't up to much which is not a good portent, so it's a quick turnaround and then on through the early evening to Thurlby, over rolling roads around Kimbolton and then flatlands north of Peterborough. I help guide some lost American riders through St Neots and everything gets more sociable as groups relax their speed and start chatting. We begin to appreciate the global nature of this four-yearly event. I chat to an American from San Franscisco. An Israeli attempting the trek on a Brompton provokes some smiles which quickly die when he reveals he's completed Paris-Brest-Paris on this machine. There are Russian riders from the Baltic audax club and Costa Ricans on a tandem.

Thurlby control is where the worries about organisation start to disappear: the volunteers run a superb show, instant card validation, good mechanical support and a three course dinner including strawberries and cream (pictured below). The pupils at the village primary school which we are using have decorated the walls with bicycle-inspired paintings.

I take some advice from local cyclists who are acting as marshalls and decide to blast up the parallel A15 rather than pick my way through the narrow lanes in the dark. Sunday evening traffic is light on this often dangerous route and its a good decision. From here until Lincoln the land is flat and empty. At Sleaford the first heavy rain hits, but I have caught a fast Italian group and huddle together with them on the narrow, nasty section of the A153 as we get a good soaking for the next hour and a half. I can't hold their pace all the way to the Washingborough control, my target for the night, but I'm well ahead of time anyway. The rain is easing as I drop down the hill to the community centre on the banks of the river Witham.

I'm eleated to have covered the first 216 km in under nine hours - my fastest ever 200, and a tremendous start. It will also mean plenty of time for a second dinner and four hours sleep tonight, more than planned.

London-Edinburgh-London 2009: strawberries and cream offered to the riders at Thurlby control centre. Credit: Andrew Cornwell
Strawberries and cream offered at the Thurlby control centre contribute to a fast opening day's ride.

Day 2: Monday 27 July
327 km Washingborough to Alston (Cumbria)

It's a miserable and misty dawn as I set off east towards the checkpoint at Wragby, nearly an hour's ride on greasy roads through featureless country. Two hardy volunteers stand by the road in the drizzle at 5.30 am - they would have been there through the night. Because of my long overnight stop I'm now towards the back of the field, but I'm informed that about 50 riders have still to reach the checkpoint.

On towards Thorne near Doncaster in light rain. At Kirton in Lindsey a rider flags me down. He looks in a dreadful state and is about to abandon having been sick overnight - he asks me to report him as DNF at the next control. The route wiggles round Scunthorpe to cross the river Trent and then there's another pancake flat section through fenland to Thorne Rugby Club. It's been a dispiriting four and a half hours to cover this 105 km section, and my mood is not helped when I'm offered a burnt croissant at the control. If yesterday's adrenalin rush felt like playing in the Champions League, today feels back to the bread and butter of a domestic English event - wet roads and lonely riders.

More flatlands, an industrial landscape with belching power stations, box girder river bridges and motorway flyovers and then the long flat push north from Howden towards York. A slight ambiguity in the routesheet takes me off course as the route skirts the city, I can't really complain after nearly 400 km cycled. Too many main roads to negotiate across on this tedious section.

Beyond York I'm once again on roads previously recc'd and the weather lightens along with my mood. The pretty villages on the edge of the North York moors arrive, and with them a series of short but stiff climbs - Crayke, Oulston and the stunning control village of Coxwold at 411 km. I fuel up there with indecent amounts of home cooked pasta and get a welcome greeting from my partner Rachel.

Andrew climbs out of the village of Coxwold in North Yorkshire on his way to completing the London-Edinburgh-London ride 2009. Credit: Rachel Cooke
Andrew climbs out of Coxwold (Photo: Rachel Cooke)

The next section along the Vale of York is flat and familiar, the dry weather a welcome contrast to my last outing here in furious rain. The 52 km to Middleton Tyas, just by Scotch Corner, is quickly covered, mainly on empty roads. Again the food service and rider care at this control point are first class.

The foothills from Scotch Corner to Barnard Castle are familiar from the 'Border Raid' audax earlier in the year. We descend to the wooden bridge at Whorlton and I'm not caught out by the sharp hairpin climb out of the valley.

Now the evening ascent over Yad Moss, the highest point of the ride at 600 metres, begins. Although I climb relatively fast, I'm conscious of the need to conserve energy for tomorrow's tough stage through the borders. So from Barnard Castle I sit on with a bunch of fairly slow climbers, mainly English riders, and ease my way up the early stages of this well-graded 25 km climb. Near the summit their support vehicle is waiting to offer coffee before the chilly descent, but in the truth the conditions are benign. The stunning beauty of the north Penines can really be appreciated tonight with the wind low and barely a car on the road to disturb the peace. Twilight comes as I start to descend with a couple of others to Alston (England's highest market town), but visibility is excellent. The control at the outdoor centre, 3 km north of town, is heaving, with dozens of bikes outside, but the service is highly organised and I can start another three course meal in minutes. After a slightly wobbly descent into the town in the dark, I check into my accommodation for a few hours rest. The ride strategy is running like clockwork, if anything slightly ahead of schedule.

Day 3: Tuesday 28 July
353 km Alston to Dalkeith (Edinburgh) and return to Alston

The make or break day. I've set myself a target to cover the long distance of any single day, over the hilliest part of the course. If I fail to make it back to Alston today, I'll pull into the Eskdalemuir control just over the Scottish border to rest up there.

Starting at 5 am, I'm on a downwardly rolling road to Brampton and Longtown for the first couple of hours, practically to sea level. I barely see another rider. The Scottish border sign is a boost to morale, and more importantly I pick up a fine tailwind to help me up the repeated series of gruelling climbs on tiny roads.

It's hard work to the Eskdalemuir control but I'm rewarded with a fine vegetable chilli produced by the monks at the nearby Buddhist temple - not my usual sustenance at nine in the morning. There's been much fretting about the wild state of the roads north of Eskdalemuir in advance of the event, but frankly they're in a better condition than some of the Hertfordshire lanes I use for training runs.

Now we're in the wilderness: there can be ten or twenty miles between isolated hamlets and country inns. Up ahead riders can be seen strung out like ants up the bare hillsides. At least the absence of car traffic makes descents less hairy. Finally we slip down into the historic village of Traquair, outside Peebles: a kilted figure in full Highland regalia is waving frantically in the middle of the road - it's the 'secret' control point in the community hall.

And what an excellent control too: massage teams, porridge, and a dram of whiskey to fortify riders for the final push to Edinburgh (a surprising number drink one). I'm ahead of schedule and take a longer stop than planned. Then its through the little town of Innerleithen, past curious golfers on the local course, and up the final summits past Whitehope Law and through the Moorfoot Hills. The descent the Scottish capital is probably the highlight of the entire ride: a nice tailwind, a good road surface but not too steep a gradient, and stunning views across to the Firth of Forth and Fife. For ten minutes I'm enjoying it on a minor road, then another twenty downhill once the main A7 is regained. Some assertive urban cycling is suddenly needed to negotiate a couple of roundabouts, but I'm soon entering the embrace of the Dalkeith Rugby Club for a late lunch. 48 and a half hours to Edinburgh: even if I fail to complete the entire event, that's a memorable achievement.

I know from the moment I leave the turnaround point that this will be a difficult experience: the headwind is such that it takes me an hour to escape town and crawl up the first summit. But the real shock is on the descent - pedalling is needed just to keep up a 20 kph speed, whereas on the way out I have been bowling along at 50-60. At Traquair its already clear I won't make Alston today. As I leave to plod up the next hill, the rain begins. I tow a German rider up the next couple of climbs, he's friendly enough in conversation but makes no effort to take even a short turn into the howling headwind before dropping me on the descent.

At the Tushielaw Inn hamlet I huddle with a group of Dutch riders under a hedge as the rain gets seriously heavy and contemplate a trip to the pub - but I know that stopping now might be fatal to my chances of completing. The only phone box is already occupied by a shivering rider. Every possible item of wet weather gear is on, but my feet are already sodden. Fortunately I'm better equipped than some. The only option is to continue: there's no mobile coverage and no chance of rescue up here. Rivers of water run across the roads, gravel is everywhere, visibility is poor in the twilight and braking is hazardous as blocks disintegrate. The next hour to Eskdalemuir is some of the most difficult cycling I've ever done. July in the Borders...

The village hall is in chaos. With sleeping accommodation for about 20, the tiny building is overwhelmed by a over a hundred bodies, some in poor medical condition. Pathetic attempts are made to dry out clothes on the single wood burning stove. Riders will sleep here under tables and on window ledges. The villagers will rally round and take some of the worst affected riders into their homes.

Just before ten I make the difficult decision to step out into the storm and continue to Alston: a local volunteer wants to take my photo as I push my bike out into the darkness, she is astonished that anyone will ride in these conditions. (Later I learn that shortly afterwards control staff actively started urging riders not to leave on safety grounds).

The first hour to Langholm is the worst, remote unlit roads where one slip could bring disaster. Recalling a particularly bad stretch of surface just outside Langholm I get off and push for 500 metres, visibility is appalling in a tunnel of trees on a twisting descent. It's a relief to get into town, I enjoy a stroke of luck that the chippy has only just closed and five past eleven, re-opens for me, and the refuelling keeps me going.

Although the conditions haven't eased, I feel mentally calmer back on the A7, in phone coverage and on major roads. The lights of Longtown signal the return to England: a trio of riders is sheltering there in a pub doorway. Later I ride up to Brampton with another colleague who looks shattered, after a brief energy bar stop in town, he urges me to drop him. Finally approaching Alston just before 3 am, an organiser's van flags me down - they are searching for a rider who's in difficulty. The driver hands me a Mars bar. The lights of town are taunting me across the hills.

I've taken a huge gamble to keep the ride on track and have never ridden so far in such poor conditions: but I'm safely in bed after a rollercoaster 22 hour day.

Day 4: Wednesday 29 July
215 km Alston to Thorne (Doncaster)

After yesterday's chaos, a change of plan looms: with a later start I'm not sure I will make Lincoln, so it's looking like a shorter trip to Thorne instead.

Andrew pushes his bike up the 14 per cent cobbled climb through Alston, the highest market town in England: London-Edinburgh-London 2009. Credit: Rachel Cooke

I decide to sleep the planned four hours, eat a decent breakfast and delay my departure until 8 am. The rain has eased and the day starts with a push up the 16 per cent cobbled climb through the centre of Alston (pictured above).

A flying visit to the control centre north of Alston, and I start the haul up Yad Moss. What ought to be a manageable climb is torture after yesterday's exertions, but at least the rain is light. I use a phone box at the top for five minutes shelter to get extra layers on for the hour long descent and nibble a flapjack or two. My average speed is starting to fall off dramatically,  and it feels like an immensely long haul back to Scotch Corner. I'm slowed further by going astray in the lanes after Barnard Castle.

The weather conditions are now taking a heavy toll on the field. At Middleton Tyas, the volunteers have empty beds and tables, with so many riders behind schedule. (At the next control in Coxwold one man is shivering uncontrollably in a space blanket, the event is over for him and others suffering from near-hyperthermia.) On the road south to Coxwold I suffer a moment of panic when my routesheet starts to disintegrate in the heavy rain exactly at the moment when I miss a turning. Then an immense stroke of luck as an event volunteer sees my confusion and stops his car: he is driving a 'packed' rider to the station, the latter hands me a set of pristine route sheets that he sadly no longer needs.

At Middleton Tyas I've taken the firm decision to shorten the day's route to Thorne.  My knees are aching and I'm mentally checking off the smallest climbs: if I can get up this one to Crayke, then it's flat riding for the next 100 km. Onto the endless B1228 from Elvington to Howden: I fall with a couple of fast Russian riders and another English guy. I struggle to hold their wheels but we are all hampered by lakes of water that often stretch more than half across the flat carriageway. Approaching Howden, with Drax power station belting out CO2 to our left, we're treated to an immense rainbow across the enormous Humber skies. And then a second. It's an uplifting moment towards the end of a punishing day.

At Thorne just before eleven at night I count 80 bikes parked up beside the rugby pitch. I choose an 'Alpine pork' stew. There's not much conversation among the 20 or so riders eating: we've begun to perfect our zombie stares. Filthy figures are crashed out on the floor of the bar, with all official sleeping space taken. Only one more day to go of this madness.

Day 5: Thursday 30 July
290 km Thorne to Cheshunt

The rationale is that if I start at 6 am I will have 18 hours to ride 300 km, something that I've now down three times before, so I should finish on Thursday night - I'm determined not to take this ride into a sixth day. More than anything it is a question of mental strength: another night on the road might just cause me to pack within hours of London.

Thorne is charming in early morning: a wrecked joyrider's car being attended to in the town, and a chilly, damp start on dead flat, dead straight minor roads southbound. Must keep awake and not end in the drainage ditches on either side. At Gainsborough the commuting traffic is heavy, I huddle out of the rain in a petrol station shop with a couple of other riders drinking self-service cappucino.

The sun emerges on the road south to Lincoln along with a London rider on a recumbent who races me intermittently until we reach the ridge above the city, where I stop briefly to take in a fine vista across to the Trent. Officially the course passes uphill in front of the cathedral, but on his advice I divert around the inner ring road, swapping cobblestones for heavy traffic. Washingborough control, three miles out of town, is a welcome sight after the sudden urban motoring madness (Lincoln is the biggest city on the route). Sadly I just miss the breakfast service of bacon sandwiches - it's already ten o'clock.

After Tuesday's experiences the LEL riders are almost resigned to the rain, so the heavy showers that persist until mid-afternoon are treated almost casually. I don't fancy the lanes to Thurlby in the wet and so once again gamble on the terrifying A15 for the section around Bourne. A stream of speeding trucks drench me repeatedly with spray, but at least my average speed rises along with the danger.

Thurlby again: last two controls now and only 150 km to run. My timing is fortunate in that a massive downpour hits as I eat what little food is left in the depleted control. That storm past, the next section is generally a pleasure, through attractive villages such as Wansford and Elton. I negotiate the short but scary section of the A47 in the company of Dutch recumbent riders who firmly make other traffic wait.

At historic Kimbolton the course turns south-east and finally we have a clear tailwind. I've never previously enjoyed the fast-moving and bland B645 (old A14) but at this moment it feels wonderful as I find reserves of energy from somewhere and clock speeds in the high thirties, overtaking some wearier riders. In the St Neots I reward myself with a coffee and cake outside in the market square: my first spend on food outside the control points this week.

Gamlingay is the final refuelling stop, with a wary eye on youths who are eyeing up parked bicycles at the community hall. Bunches of riders seem to be forming in the early evening: three hours from home now. I've never been so pleased to see the familiar vista of Ashwell church from the ridge above the Cam valley - it is home territory from here where I ride most weekends. Local knowledge helps immensely from here as darkness falls on the lanes: I find myself helping out confused foreign riders on a few occasions.

Hertford is a shock to the system, with nightlife getting going and drunken girls and boys spewing out on to the pavements, it feels like a return to 'civilisation' after five days on rural roads. Some give the cyclists applause, some offer abuse. The pace slows dramatically over the last 20 km - it is hard to keep up speed on the twisty turns through wooded areas.

Finally it is into Cheshunt, bouncing over speed humps and the level crossing to the finish. 11.10 pm. Arrival is low key: exhausted riders drink complementary beers, finishers are trying to produce a coherent signature on their cards. The first rider back was here nearly two days ago: the last stragglers will be here tomorrow at noon. I've done it in just under 106 hours, only two hours behind the schedule I had orginally had in mind, which is astonishing given the weather conditions and the change of plan.

Andrew arrives exhausted at the finish of the 875 mile London-Edinburgh-London ride, 30 July 2009. Credit: Rachel Cooke
Andrew arrives exhausted but happy at the finish.
(Photo: Rachel Cooke).

Andrew's LEL ride in numbers

Distance ridden: 1401 km
Average rolling speed: 21.6 kph
Hours on bike: 64 hours 51 minutes
Sleeping time: 16 hours 30 minutes
Total time: 105 hours 40 minutes

Controls visited: 20
Cups of tea (approx): 35
Flapjacks consumed (approx): 25
Weight at start: 68 kg
Weight at finish: 66.5kg

Punctures: 0
Mechanicals: none

Metres of climbing: 8,500
Highest point: Yad Moss summit 600 m
Typical day's distance: 280 km

Total starters: 530
Total finishers: 413
Countries represented: 27
Fastest finisher: 65 hours 25 mins
Maximum time allowed: 116 hours 40 mins

Thanks to my partner Rachel Cooke for her fantastic support and to Hen Cooke for the flapjacks.