Martin Tallontire’s very, very long bike ride

What’s your preference? Maybe a short, all-out-effort 10-mile or full day 24-hour TT? A just-about-hanging-on road race or cyclo-cross where your bike handling skills are put to the test? Well, none of those short, easy – yes, even the ’24’ – events for Martin Tallontire, our former racing secretary who much prefers something longer. Actually, make that much longer.

Martin has been riding some very long audaxes recently, his latest being the London-Edinburgh-London. He experienced smiles and tears, euphoria and doubt, met with familiar views and welcome faces but ultimately – well, read the full story from Martin himself. And next time you think you can’t be bothered to go out on the bike for an hour, think again!

London Edinburgh London (LEL) – 1,436km in under 117 hours!

The event

LEL takes place every four years and is the biggest audax event in the UK; it’s probably second only now in size and importance to Paris – Brest – Paris in France. It’s not a race, but there is a maximum and minimum speed, you need to maintain an average speed somewhere between the two to be classed a finisher. The maximum speed was 30kph (I wasn’t going to get anywhere near that), but the minimum speed gave a time for the event to be completed in of 117 hours, 5 minutes. There were around 1,600 entries from 51 countries, with over 1,400 riders taking the start.

The route headed north from Loughton in North East London, through Essex and over the Fens before crossing the Humber Bridge. After crossing Yorkshire the Pennines were traversed via Yad Moss into Brampton. A Scottish loop heading north to Moffat and Edinburgh was followed by a hilly route south through Innerleithen and Eskdalemuir back to Brampton before the retracing the route back south, with only the last leg from St Ives to the finish on different roads. Overall the official distance was 1,436km. You can find a full map of the route at https://londonedinburghlondon.com/route/

The Preparation
After completing my first Super Randonneur series (200K, 300K, 400K & 600K rides) in 2016, LEL was the obvious next step up. As I had been an Audax UK member for a couple of years I knew I had a guaranteed entry for the event well in advance, so had plenty of time to plan how I was going to prepare. I was aiming for around 150 miles a week on average, but in the end I ended up with a regime of riding 500 miles over a three week period, then an easier week, then repeat. I also decided I wanted to try and ride regular 200K events over the autumn and winter, and thanks to some luck with the weather managed one every month from September to April. In May I stepped the distance up with a hilly 300K, and a 550 mile week in Majorca, then rode a 600K in June and a 400K at the start of July. A hilly 100K helpers’ ride for the Otley CC audax was the last hard ride two weeks before the event.

The Day Before

We drove down to London the day before, with the rest of the family staying in London for the week. As we came off the M25 we immediately started seeing riders heading to or from registration in Loughton (easily spotted by the saddle bags, mudguards etc.), and the size of the event became evident. The riders were from all over the world, we passed Thais, Indians, Italians and Germans just on the couple of miles into town and the range of machinery was also impressive – tandems, trikes, tandem trikes, elliptigos, Bromptons, recumbents and the fully faired velomobile recumbents were all spotted.

At the HQ in Loughton the excitement was building but it was a very quick and efficient sign on and bag drop off and we were in and out in half an hour with the all-important brevet card. I bumped into Ian Kellar, he had an early start the following morning and ended up finishing in a very rapid 92 hours.

Day 1 – Loughton (London) – Louth. 151.4 miles. Dep 12.15, Arr 22.16

With a 12.15 start time I had plenty of time for a lie in and leisurely breakfast before heading to the start. After getting my brevet card scanned for the first time, it was into the start pen and nervous chat with the other riders, before finally getting out onto the road. The first few miles passed quickly, riding with a couple of small groups before watching them go up the road as I settled in to my own pace. For at least the first half of long rides I like to ride at my own pace, one that I know is sustainable for the distance. If that means I have to let a group go then so be it, I’d rather do that than blow up holding onto someone’s wheel. Similarly, at these early stages I don’t want to waste any time, so won’t hang about to ride with someone if they are going slower than me. Sometimes it works out that there’s someone travelling at the same pace and in that case it’s great to have company, but otherwise I’m quite happy to ride on my own, knowing this strategy has worked well on the long rides I’ve done so far.

We had a nice cross/ tail wind all the way to the first control at St Ives after 100K, so I was there in under 4 hours. It was then time to work out the control routine – first get the brevet card stamped and scanned, then head for the food and drink, search out the toilets, fill water bottles, then scan out before leaving. The controls were all staffed by volunteers who did a fantastic job throughout the event, always helpful , and often getting less sleep than the riders.

From St Ives it was over the Fens via a control at Spalding. On the flat with the wind behind it was much easier to ride in groups, and I was in a decent sized bunch making good time over the flatlands. After sitting in a while I did a turn on the front with a Hungarian rider who told me he was heading to Edinburgh before his first stop, a slightly different plan to mine, which was to get to Louth, about 500K less distance.

As we headed towards Horncastle the road started rising a little and this split the group up, with a heavy rain shower finishing the job as everyone found a handy tree to shelter under to put on rain jackets. From Horncastle the route headed into the Lincolnshire Wolds, but the terrain was relatively benign, and I rolled into the control at 22.15, about an hour and a half earlier than I expected. There was a short queue for food and beds, but I picked up my bag from the bag drop and was in bed by 23.00. I don’t necessarily sleep well after a long ride, but even if I don’t sleep, just lying down helps the body recover from the day’s exertions. In Louth though, for some reason I slept pretty well and the next thing I knew was my wake up call at 04.30.

Day 2 – Louth – Gretna Green.​214.7 miles​. Dep 05.11, Arr 22.34
The scene at the control was slightly different in the morning. It seemed the majority of the entry had decided to stop here, and I’d been lucky to get there whilst there were still beds.

The dining area was full of sleeping bodies, people kipping down wherever there was space. Chatting to a couple of other riders the control had run out of food overnight and had just managed to get some porridge made as I arrived for breakfast. I had a small bowl and a slice of cake and hit the road. I enjoyed the ups and downs of the Wolds in the early morning and seemed to be passing lots of riders on the road, though there was also evidence of the aftermath of the high numbers at Louth – a rider wrapped in a space blanket sleeping on a bench on the side of the road, and a large group of riders outside the first open shop in Barton on Humber. After the Humber Bridge there were more hills to North Newbald before heading to the next control at Pocklington.

From there the next control was at Thirsk, with the suggested route being via Castle Howard and over the Howardian Hills. Having ridden this route several times before I was happy to take a shorter and flatter version via Stamford Bridge, Easingwold and Husthwaite, and I made good time, although it felt very strange to not be able to see another rider in front of me. By this time the controls were getting quieter when I arrived, as I got ahead of the main bulge of riders. From there being hundreds of riders in the control at Spalding and Louth it was down to 30-40 at Thirsk and would gradually decrease as the ride went on, with probably only 5 or 6 riders in the last few controls on the final day. This was all good, as it meant there was lots of food and drink choice and no hanging about in queues.

From Thirsk it was a flat ride to near Scotch Corner, via a diversion for a closed road at Barton (where I bottled out on riding the ford) then a little hillier to Barnard Castle via the wooden boards of the bridge at Whorlton. The wind had been mainly a cross wind up to now but heading in a more westerly direction seemed to bring it round to head on, so it was nice to stop at BC for a short break.

After BC there was a long climb out of town before a sudden rainstorm and a descent into Middleton in Teesdale. Halfway down the descent I heard a shout and spotted my Mum and Dad beside the road. They’d headed over from their home in Cumbria to give me some encouragement and it was fantastic to see them and have a cup of tea from their flask for five minutes before heading off again.

The next stage was over Yad Moss, the highest point on the ride. The climb is around 22K in length, but has relatively shallow gradients, so was a climb I enjoyed, especially as the wind had died down. Even so, it did seem to go on for ever and it was a relief to get over the top and descend down to Alston and then to Brampton. On the descent I spotted the first rider on their way back to London, already over 300K ahead of me and on for a finish in 63 hours!

Just before Brampton I was stopped with another rider at a level crossing. The man in the signal box had been watching all the cyclists going past and had been researching the ride, and we had a good chat about what we were doing before the train passed and we could head off. This seemed to be a common occurrence along the route, whenever people came across the event there was a lot of interest in what we were doing, and support for our efforts.

At Brampton I had another bag drop, but wasn’t stopping as I’d booked a hotel at Gretna Green for the night. An hour later I’d checked in, and after a shower it was a very comfortable few hours’ sleep.

Day 3 – Gretna Green – Alston. 193.7 miles​. Dep 05.59, Arr 23.03
After a 05.30 alarm call I was on the road half an hour later and within a couple of miles straight into the middle of a torrential rain storm, with the roads flooded with water.

Fortunately it only lasted half an hour or so, but arriving in Moffat everything was still damp, so as the sun was coming out I hung everything to dry on the bike as I had breakfast.

The sun was really shining as we left Moffat and headed on to the Devil’s Beeftub climb. Again it was another steady gradient over several miles and in the sunshine the scenery was wonderful, with a constant stream of riders pulling into the side of the road to take photos. Once over the top there was an equally steady descent, which with a slowly increasing tailwind, made for a really nice ride into the outskirts of Edinburgh. We got into the city via a cycle path down an old railway line which went well until I made a wrong turn and ended up on a dirt track. A bit of cyclocross and a carry up a flight of steps was needed to get back on the right path.

I arrived in Edinburgh just after 12.00, so around halfway in under 48 hours, and really happy with the progress made so far.

From Edinburgh we were heading back south and that wind was now in our face, however the sun was out, the roads were fantastic, I had good legs (which seems very odd to say given I’d done 700K by then) and it was great cycling. Once we were out of Edinburgh the roads were quiet and we headed into the hills, with some scenic countryside and views back over the city.

There were two decent climbs before the Innerleithen control and another couple of decent ones afterwards, before heading through the forest to a control at the community café in Eskdalemuir. Just before arriving the heavens opened again, and I arrived completely soaked through, but a good feed and a couple of cups of tea worked wonders and by the time I left the rain had stopped and it was a dry ride back to Brampton.

Just before getting there I managed to meet up with my mum and dad for another cup of tea in a layby in Newtown. I was born in Brampton and lived in Newtown before moving all the way south to Penrith, so I was able to spot our old house before heading off again. Arriving in Brampton I was intending to stop the night but had a bit of a rethink whilst checking the weather. The forecast for Thursday was showing very strong headwinds over the fens, just at the time I was expecting to get there. Whilst there wasn’t going to be a huge difference in conditions, it did look a bit quieter in the early morning over the fens so I decided to try to get to Alston to sleep, then to Spalding the next day to try and make the most of the lighter winds.

Actually the ride to Alston as dusk fell was one of the highlights of the entire event. A quiet road, reasonable weather, a couple of red lights blinking in the darkness in front of me, but otherwise no sign of anybody or anything else for miles and I rolled into the sleep stop in Alston after a brilliant day on the bike.

Day 4 – Alston – Louth​​​. 173.3 miles. ​Dep 05.20, Arr 19.38
After feeling great the day before I woke up with a sore throat and stuffy nose, which didn’t bode well for the day ahead. But, it’s just a case of getting stuck in as the route immediately went back over Yad Moss, via the steep cobbles of Alston’s main street, though at 5.30am it was easy to ride up the pavement to avoid them.

Near the top of Yad Moss audax legend Drew Buck was serving tea and flapjacks from his camper van, but having just set off it was too early to stop, so I carried on down the descent to Middleton in Teesdale then back to Barnard Castle for breakfast.

The forecast wind had moved from a southwesterly to a southeasterly, it was initially fairly benign, though as we headed back to Thirsk (this time I rode the Barton ford) it started to pick up.

By Pocklington the wind was getting noticeably stronger and it was a tough ride back to the Humber Bridge, crossing it on the east side to get some shelter as the path is below road level. I had a stop at the shop leaving Barton on Humber that had been besieged by riders on Monday morning, the shopkeeper was still amazed at the distance everyone was riding. I shelled out a pound on a sausage roll. Apart from a croissant for breakfast on Tuesday morning at Gretna Services that was the only money spent all ride.

From Barton the road gradually rises to Caistor, before heading into the Wolds. I’d ridden this section in a 400K and it had been a nice stretch of road, but today, with 1000K in my legs, a strong headwind, and now heavy rain added it was by far the toughest part of the ride. It was a succession of steep, bottom gear, out of the saddle climbs, with descents having to be taken cautiously due to the wind and rain. Every short climb felt like it went on forever, with no recovery afterwards. I lost count of the times I said to myself that after this climb it was downhill to Louth, only to turn a corner and find another cliff face to haul myself up.

The promised land of Louth was finally reached at 19.30, and I settled down to eat and decide on next steps. They helpfully had the weather forecast on big screens at the controls, with the forecast headwinds now even stronger than they had been the day before. Given I was exhausted, the weather was rubbish and there was no immediate sign of it letting up I took the decision to have an early sleep before heading out in the early hours to try and catch the lightest wind and try to get to St Ives for 10.00. I reckoned if I could get there I would then be in the lanes where there would be much more shelter and it would be an easier ride to the finish. I was in bed for 20.30, with only another couple of riders in the 250 bed sports hall.

Unable to sleep to start with, I started having the first negative thoughts of the ride. I’d ridden 280K that day and it had been really hard, and tomorrow was nearly the same length with massive headwinds all the way, how was it possible to do that again? For the first time I began to think about not finishing the ride and what that might mean. I was saved by sleep……

Day 5 – Louth – Loughton (London) . 165.3 miles​. Dep 01.59, Arr 17.27

Thanks to Ivo Miesen for the photo

My alarm call was for 1.30, and I went straight to autopilot – gear on, breakfast eaten, drop bag returned and I was on the road within half an hour. As soon as I was on my bike any negativity dropped away, I was turning the pedals, I was getting closer to Loughton, and I was going to finish. Even a sharp shower as I climbed the Wolds couldn’t dampen my spirits.

As I headed into the fens, the wind had dropped from its strength of the previous evening and I made reasonable progress at 14-15mph. The sky was gradually lightening from the west and this would be my first cycling daybreak. I’ve always managed to get a reasonable night’s sleep on long rides before and have never needed to cycle through the night, so it was an added bonus to finally tick another thing off the audax bucket list.

As I got to Kirton it was fully light and the wind was rising, with a turn to the South West bringing it straight into my face. The speed dropped but I arrived in Spalding for 06.00, had a half hour stop for breakfast and headed out again. The wind was stronger still and the first few miles, along the raised banks of the River Welland were very tough. It would have been great to get in another group to share the work, but that wasn’t an option as there were very few other riders around – I chatted briefly with a couple of them, but they were both looking to get under 100 hours and wanted to push on, so I wished them well and carried on at my own pace.

I had been thinking the previous day that I may be able to finish in under 100 hours, but after the hell of the Wolds the previous evening I’d decided to just concentrate on finishing – feeling that if I pushed to go too fast I might blow completely and put at risk the whole ride.

I settled down at a pace I knew I could sustain for the rest of the day. It was slow, and not very exciting, but I knew as long as I kept riding I’d get to St Ives. At times my speed dropped into single figures mph, but I just tried to keep disciplined. I’d memorised the towns and villages on this leg so slowly ticked them off – Crowland, Thorney, Whittlesey, Pondersbridge….. After Upwell I remembered that there was a bit more shelter, and a couple of miles later there was a left turn which meant that the headwind became more of a cross wind. What a relief, and within a few minutes I was in St Ives, bang on my target time of 10.00.

I decide to take my time at the control, and tried to relax a little, chatting to a volunteer as I had my third breakfast of the day, and, after a short wait, one of the riders who’d passed me earlier. He was an Irish rider who I’d chatted to briefly in Louth the previous night, and was noticeable as he had a towel gaffer taped around his neck. He’d started suffering from Shermer’s Neck (a problem common in long distance cyclists where the muscles of the neck stop working, stopping you holding your head up) so had faked up a solution with the towel so he was able to see on the bike. When he’d passed me before Crowland he’d had less than 6 hours to do 180K to make his 100 hour finish, a very tough ask, but despite his neck problem he was still really cheerful and determined to go for it. I’d passed him a few miles later pulled over to kerb – he gave me the thumbs up as I went past to let me know he was OK, but I found out at the control he’d decided he needed a sleep so had had a 10 minute power nap on the grass verge.

By the time he arrived in St Ives the 100 hour finish wasn’t possible but I was really pleased to see that he still made it to Loughton and completed the ride. He certainly gave me inspiration to get back on the bike and finish the ride off.
From St Ives we had the novelty of riding down the traffic free guided bus lane to Cambridge, then on some excellent cycle paths through the city. I found it quite refreshing to be riding on something different from the normal roads of the last 1300K, though my speed was certainly dropping as I was getting outdragged from the traffic lights by the local commuters. As we hit the centre of the city there were hundreds of tourists, all appearing to want to step off the kerb onto the cycle path without looking. Fortunately I managed to sit on the wheel of a couple of locals, one who had the loudest bike horn I’ve heard. If anyone even remotely looked like they’d attempt to leave the pavement there was an AROOGA, AROOGA from the horn at maximum decibels. Once through the city centre we came to a halt at a set of traffic lights and I gave him a big thank you for letting me benefit from the clear passage.

From Cambridge it was a flat, relatively sheltered ride until the last few miles before the control where things started to get a little hilly again. The main concern through was a couple of miles of new surface dressings on one of the lanes, and there were a number of sketchy corners with loose gravel before the final control at Great Easton.

Again I had a relaxed stop here before heading out for the last relatively short section to the finish. For the first time I changed one of the fields on my Garmin to show distance to finish, and it slowly decreased from the 30.1 miles it started with. Getting so close to the finish, and the thought of seeing my family at the finish line saw my emotions yo-yoing. One minute I was grinning in sheer elation, the next bursting into tears. I’ve never got emotional on a bike ride before, so even then I think I appreciated just what an achievement riding such a distance was, and what it meant to complete it. As I crossed the M25 with 3 miles left I gave a big cheer and punched the air, which I think was a bit of a surprise to the car overtaking me.

One more hill and we rejoined the outward route at Theydon Bois. I remembered that the last 2K was mostly downhill, and after riding within myself all day the adrenalin now kicked in and I timetrialled flat out to the finish. In the last half mile we turned north and finally had a tail wind for the final stretch. I rolled in to the finish 101 hours 15 minutes after starting, handed my brevet card in for the final stamp, received my finisher’s medal and had my finisher’s photo taken by Charlotte Barnes.

http://www.charlottebarnes.co.uk/lel2017portraits

Mine is http://www.charlottebarnes.co.uk/lel2017portraits/h9309ea65

My adrenalin rush meant I beat the rest of my family to the finish, but 10 minutes later they arrived and there was lots of hugs, more grins, tears and lots of incoherent babbling to anyone one who would listen.

It was an epic ride, an amazing experience and a big thank you must go to everyone involved, the organisation was exemplary and the tlc from the volunteers throughout the event took it to another level.

Finally it was time to load the car up, leave the LEL bubble and return to real life.

Total​ 898.4 miles​

Ave Speed – 14.31mph

Riding time ​63hrs 25 mins

​​​​​​​Stopped time​ 37hrs 50mins

The Day After
The next day I picked my drop bags from HQ and managed to catch up with my fellow Otley CC member Chris Radcliffe, who’d also finished the evening before, so two OCC finishers from two starters (only 55% of the starters made it to the finish in time).

Chris and me

The Bike & Kit
I rode my Giant TCR. It’s got Ultegra DI2 groupset (50/34 front, 11/28 rear), Speedplay pedals and Mavic Ksyrium Elite wheels, with 2 new Schwalbe Lugano tyres for LEL. There’d been a lot of talk about poor weather prior to the event so at the last minute I bought some Raceblade mudguards and fitted them a couple of days beforehand.

The impending miles also meant I finally learnt how to properly index DI2 gears, and also work out where the creaking noise I’d been hearing for the last year or so was coming from (loose handlebar bolt). Navigation was by .gpx files loaded onto my Garmin 1000.

There would be plenty of riding at night so I had 2 Moon Meteor rechargeable front lights, a Lezyne rechargeable and Cateye battery back light and a small helmet mounted Lezyne battery light.

Kit was carried in an Apidura saddlebag and a Topeak toptube bag. I carried for the duration of the ride, either in pockets, top tube or saddlebag the following:

Brevet Card​​​

​Phone​​​​

Route sheet

Cash / credit card​​​

Café lock​​​

Cleat covers

Foot covers (for in controls)​​

Ear plugs​​​

Gels / cereal bars

Multi-tool​​​​

2 x tubes​​

​CO2 canister + pump

Tyre boot​​

​​Emergency spoke​​

Zip ties + electrical tape

Long sleeved reflective jersey

Club gilet​​​

Rain jacket

Leg warmers​​​

​Long fingered gloves​​

Overshoes

Sun cream​

​​​Sudocrem​​​

Electrolyte tablets

Anket battery charger & cables​

​2 x Water bottles

Apart from the tools (the only maintenance on route was to tighten a bottle cage bolt and borrow some chain lube from the mechanic at Barnard Castle), everything was used except for the sun cream!

I had two drop bags, one at Brampton and one at Louth. They each had to weigh less than 2.5kg and each contained essentially the same, as follows:

Short sleeved top​​​

Base layer​​​

Shorts

Track mitts​​​​

Socks​​​​

2 x tubes

2 x CO2 canisters​​​

4 x gels in spare water bottle​

Cereal bars

12 x High 5 4:1 sachet*

Electrolyte tablets​​

Toothbrush / paste

2 x High 5 protein recovery sachet ​

Anker battery charger & cables**​​

Sudocrem.

*​Complete miscalculation, only needed 6 sachets in each bag…..
**​At the end of the ride all three chargers were drained, with less than 15% charge on my phone and the rechargeable rear light dead. I still needed to top my Garmin up at Eskdalemuir and Great Easton controls, so I could have done with at least another one in each drop bag.

Further Reading
If I’ve piqued your interest in LEL, there have been some excellent blogs written about the event – here are some I enjoyed to be going along with.
https://brbrn.wordpress.com/2017/08/07/london-edinburgh-london/
https://duracellbunnyonabike.com/2017/08/13/lel-sign-me-up-for-2021/
https://sian13.wordpress.com/2017/08/08/a-very-long-post-about-a-very-long-ride/
https://audaxery.wordpress.com/2017/08/14/fear-and-louthing-lel-2017/