Notes for a BBC Radio interview about London Edinburgh London

On Friday 28 July I was invited onto Chris Mann's Drive Time show on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire to talk about the then up-coming 1400km LEL ride that I was going to undertake.  Ten days later, on successfully completing the ride, Chris invited me back onto the show to talk about how it had gone.

 Chris Mann (L) and me just before the show started

Chris Mann (L) and me just before the show started

In order to prepare for the interview — more of a chat, really — I sent Chris some detailed notes of the event and of my ride, to help him pick and choose questions.  The notes were quite thorough and of themselves they make quite an interesting read.  Enjoy!

My ride — enlightening in places, utterly brutal in others; not quite as quick as I had hoped, but a quick finish in the end

At the start I thought I would finish the event in about 100 hours — the time limit for the 900-mile route was 117 hours.  That isn’t quite how it went.

From my 12.15pm start on Sunday, we had a strong tailwind during the rest of Sunday and I made great progress, riding over 200 miles before stopping for some sleep near Yorkshire.  The second day the wind was less useful, but I still managed about 180 miles across increasingly hilly ground.  The climb up and over Yad Moss was eye-opening — it’s a 300m climb across moorland and high farmland, and I was riding on fixed-gear, but I managed to push over quite quickly.  However, I was still slower than I had expected and the 100-hour target started to slip away here.

The ride into Edinburgh on the third day was an incredible ride — another 300m climb out of Moffat, north of Carlisle, which on fixed-gear I rode much quicker than previously on gears, and the long, long run through classic Scottish remote countryside to Edinburgh.  I felt tired, but I was managed to refer a little at a time and still had my legs.

A good stop at Edinburgh for food and to chat with friends, before the turn back towards London — there is a stiff sequence of hills through the Scottish Borders to climb over, and the wind had strengthened and was now a block headwind.  I had to walk the first of the hills, the Granites, because I simply couldn’t turn the pedals over!  But with that hill out of the way, I was able to keep on top of the gear and ride up the rest, again the option of a single gear — i.e. no option — meant I was generally quicker up the hills than other riders, which made me smile.  This whole section put me well behind my planned time, so I now readjusted to aim for 117 hours and be happy with that — when you’ve switched to the mind game then it’s important to minimise stress, because it ruins the enjoyment of the ride.

A decent sleep and then the return-proper to London.  Starting with a re-ascent of Yad Moss and darkening skies, it was now a case of plugging away until I got to the end.  Knowing that we faced a brutal headwind across the Fens, with no hedges or hills to hide behind, I pushed on to keep my spare time intact.  A quick 15-minute snooze in Louth in East Lincs and it was time to face my demon — headwind.  The headwind was so strong I was riding at little more than walking pace at times, but I managed to find groups of other riders to work with and share the load and we got across the Fens okay to the control in Spalding.

From here I was on home ground and the end in sight.  Just the open section from Spalding to St Ives to cover, which I did with a group of Essex riders, who I know well.  I stopped at the end of our street in Girton to give my wife and boys a hug, before the Essex train picked me up as they passed.  The late night run through Cambridge was uneventful and we took the quicker route option via Saffron Walden.

By now, we knew we could finish, so we started chasing each other up the rolling Essex hills — the only way to find out how much is left in your legs after 850 miles is to ride 850 miles and then start challenging each other, which we did — it was brilliant fun!  I was surprised how much I had left, even carrying a painful strain injury in my leg.

We raced each other into the finish at about 6.30 on Friday morning — four days, 18 hours and 15 minutes after I left it — result!  I finished stress-free and very happy, which is a complete contrast to the last time I rode it.

Job done — how do you feel? Elated, deeply satisfied, happy, looking forward to the next one

Crossing the finishing line still pushing the pace and playing games, knowing that I could’ve gone quicker in the final 50 miles is a deeply satisfying experience.  To have put in so much work to get to the start, to have planned weeks in advance what kit to wear, what to take, how to use it all.  To follow through on the plan to finish.  To overcome all the obstacles that the terrain, the weather, my fitness, and what’s in my head threw at me.  To know that I had finished in time, my ride would be validated and nobody could take that away from me — I was really very happy at the finish.  Usually the phrase goes “ask me next week”, but with all the fun in the final two stages and finishing with plenty of time, this time I just felt great.

And I was then able to appreciate and encourage all my friends who finished around me — some a lot worse for wear!  It’s the memories that we take away from an event such as this, and to be on the finishing line with some great memories is a fantastic feeling!  Roll on the next one!

Camaraderie — we’re all in this together

Audax cycling events are individual events — the individual rider must make their own way around the course.  However, riders often group together for a bit to chat, joke, and to share the work on the front of the group.  I rode with so many riders and groups, it is one of the real pleasures of these events — we are all in this together and everyone has a story to tell, especially the hundreds of riders from other countries.  The cycling on its own is hard and at times quite uninteresting, but the people around you on the ride make it an amazing experience, whether they are the other riders, or the volunteers in the controls.

One rider suffering with Schermer’s Neck came across another rider with a broken bike in the middle of the Scottish Borders — they swapped bikes AND shoes, so the guy who was well could continue, and he finished, and the rider with the dodgy neck was subsequently rescued by one of the volunteers in a van.  That is a fairly typical story.

 The mental game — you cannot ride these events if your head’s not in it — you have to WANT to finish

All rides of this length, you need to have your head in a good place — after the second day then the legs are shot, it’s not possible to completely recover energy, heart rate is ticking along at 120bpm, as opposed to 150bpm, and everything hurts.  The body keeps telling us to stop, give up, get off the bike — and then it’s the turn of the head to take over and drive the campaign!  This was the third time I had been there, so I knew what to expect, but plenty of first-timers succumb to the inner-voice pleading with them to stop! 

For me, when I had crossed the Fens and got to Spalding after the worst of the headwind then I knew I had it in the bag and just had to pedal steadily the final 190km/120 miles to the finish back through home turf of Cambridgeshire and Cambridge.

 Feeding — four square meals a day, with added indigestion

Across the ride I estimate that I burned more than 30,000kcal — more than 12 days’ food in four days.  To compensate, I must’ve eaten at least four hearty meals every day, without any time to let it go down, so digesting on the bike.  That was all topped up with a LOT of Jelly Babies!  And half a pack of indigestion tablets.

Sleeping — 10 hours over five nights; some nights only 15 minutes

Over the five nights of the event I managed to sleep just 10 hours — and just 15 minutes sleep on each of the final two nights.  I slept on airbeds, sitting in cafés, on a sofa, and three times on the floor.  When I got to the finish, after congratulating all my friends, I fell asleep outside in the sun.  I still need an afternoon nap every day.

My injuries — sore hands, saddle sores and an x-ray for a possible bone stress-fracture

Common injuries on ultra-distance endurance cycling events include nerve damage in the hands, sore and swollen Achilles tendons, neck issues, saddles sores, and sore knees.  From experience I managed to avoid most of these issues, but instead picked up a severely painful issue with my right shin — but with just 200 miles left to ride, I pushed on to the finish.  The following day my foot and leg was swollen to the point none of my shoes fit me.  It is still painful and I am going in for an x-ray to check for a stress fracture, but it’s probably just a tendon issue that will heal with time.

I also got quite severe saddle sores towards the end, which made for a very uncomfortable ride from the finish to home!

The weather — wind, rain, gale-force headwind!

After your forecast of a tailwind to Edinburgh, I made excellent time, getting to Edinburgh in two days.  But the return was into a headwind all the way south.  Crossing the Fens was absolutely brutal into that 40mph headwind last Thursday with gusts up to 65mph — normally I ride on the flat around 15mph, but that headwind had me moving at only 6mph!  As is often the way, we grouped together to work as one into the wind and save energy.  A lot of riders found themselves out-of-time due to the headwind.

We also saw our fair share of rain — some of it as heavy as we are experiencing today in Cambridgeshire.  But there was no point hiding from it — most of us just donned waterproofs and carried on, since the rain always finishes, eventually.  It was spectacular when descending off Yad Moss into heavy rain and a solid headwind — character building!

The dropout rate — 34% failed to finish in time

Over one-third of all starters failed to finish the event in time!  LEL is a hard event, due to its length and the variety of landscape that’s covered — from some of the very flattest in the UK across the Fens, right up to some of the very hilliest as we crossed the Pennines, twice, and also passed through the Scottish Borders.  Riders who hadn’t prepared properly found themselves cold, wet, and very very tired and unable to continue.

The volunteers — 400 selfless, enthusiastic, funny and inspirational volunteers supported us

The event cannot be held without the selflessness and commitment of the 400 volunteers who took part.  They looked after riders while we were at the 20 controls — checking us in and out, feeding us, fixing bikes, finding us beds — and waking us up on time.  Their event required at least as much endurance as ours and some I’ve spoken to had LESS sleep than I had over the course of the event!  Almost every one I have spoken with has talked about how much fun they’d had.  In some locations interested locals even walked in off the street and gave a couple of days’ time volunteering, even though they were non-cyclists.
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Nick Wilkinson

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