London Edinburgh London, often known as LEL, is one of the most famous Audax cycling events in the world, perhaps second only to the legendary Paris Brest Paris. At 1,500km in length it’s also one of the longest, and quite possibly the toughest. As the name suggests, the route starts in London, heads through the country to Edinburgh (although for 2022 it crossed the River Forth) and returns to London.
For me personally, as someone who enjoys endurance events LEL stood out as a pinnacle event, and one that would likely push me further than any previous challenge. It usually runs every four years, although COVID had changed that slightly, with this edition being delayed a year. The organisers plan on returning it to the usual schedule, which will mean the next event will take place in 2025 for anyone keen on attempting it.
It seems like such a long time ago that I set myself the goal of completing LEL, and after enjoying some tough but shorter 300km and 400km Audax events I decided to jump in at the deep end. The entry went in and was accepted in October 2019, and at that time it was due to take place in August 2021. With over 50% of the riders entered coming from overseas, the organisers sensibly decided to postpone it to this year. Despite entering almost three years ago, it really seemed to creep up on me.
The first challenge for me was getting to the start line and finding a suitable place to stay the night before. I don’t drive so relying on public transport to get from Mid Wales to Paddington was enough, but navigating the London Underground with restrictions on where and when you can take bikes took far more brain power than it should have. The start location of Debden, North London is also one that isn’t really close to lots of accommodation. Eventually I got lucky, with only a bonus four kilometres to add to the 1,520km ride I was about to embark on!
Registration took place the day before, and it was here that the sheer size of the event begun to show with a huge number of volunteers to guide you through collecting your number, filling and leaving the drop bags for the pre-selected control locations, plus answering any questions riders might have.
Over 1,500 riders started the event and the whole registration process was extremely slick, It wasn’t long before I found myself back in my room ready for an early night… which was scuppered by a party at the pub I was staying out, with the music loud enough that I might as well have gone down to join in the fun.
My alarm went at 3:45am, and with far too little sleep I cycled to the start ready for the 5am depart.
There are two main completion goals for LEL, with the vast majority having to complete in 125 hours (which, 20 minutes before the event, was extended to 128 hours due to the extreme hot weather), but for the very keen the early start is for riders who aim to complete the distance in under 100 hours, of which I was one. I would estimate approximately 50 to 70 riders started in this wave.
There was no ceremonious start, simply “off you go, see you in a few days”, and we headed on to the quiet roads, crossing the M25 and out of North London.
The initial 100 kilometres or so passed by quickly and without any trouble. It was a chance to look around me, settle in to the group riding and watch others. Considering there was such a long way to go, several riders seemed keen to push the pace with a few in particular pulling on the front. I simply left them to it, sitting further back and taking the tow.
With such a large pack of riders, I made something of a tactical decision of pushing towards the front as the first control approached. With such a large group, all likely to want to fill up their water bottles and get the brevet cards stamps, this was exactly the right thing to do.
As with all Audax events there are no route markings, you have to rely on self-navigation to complete the route; but in order to prove you have completed the distance a number of control points need to be reached. Depending on the event these are either manned, where a stamp is added to the brevet card that you need to carry, or they can be information controls, where a question might need to be answered about the control point you are visiting.
For LEL every control was manned, and the sheer number of volunteers was again evident. With the bottles filled and card stamped I was back on the road, and now with a much smaller group of 10-15 riders to ride with, but still I was happy to sit towards the back. The route crossed the completely flat fens and the landscape seemed alien to me. The dry, yellow landscape, complete lack of hedges and flat landscape was more like France that the Welsh hills I am used to.
The second control after 200 kilometres also passed quickly enough, and again the group dwindled further with just a few of us riding along together. At this point, I had absolutely no idea if there was anyone ahead to ride towards and expand the group. LEL is not a race, but there is still an element of competition and for some riders it will be a competition to complete the distance within the time limit.
As we crossed into Lincolnshire, a few short but sharp hills started to rise up. This became the natural point where the group split, and I found myself on my own. I didn’t know at the time that this would be the last time I would ride with anyone else.
It would have been foolish to push myself too hard, as there was so much unknown about how my body might react to such a long distance; but I continued without stopping too much. The fourth control at Hessle, having just crossed the Humber Bridge, was the first time I stopped to enjoy the wonderful hot food that was on offer at almost every control. Hessle was also the location of my first drop bag, although I felt at this time it was too soon. The bag I had was filled with lots of food options, and also spare items of clothing and cables to recharge electrical items.
I had fed, filled up with water, restocked from my drop bag and had my card stamped and continued North. The route profile began to look spiky as we entered the North York Moors, with several gradient warning signs that were so welcome to see with now over 400 kilometres ridden.
There was a secret control between the checkpoints at Malton and Barnard Castle, which I can only assume was to ensure riders took the correct route, as perhaps there was an easier alternative route that could have been taken. To this point I had been the first rider to arrive at each of the previous five controls, and the welcome at them all was simply fantastic. The control at Barnard Castle was a natural split between the North York Moors, and the approaching North Pennines, and for most riders I am sure this would be the most feared section.
Darkness had fallen as I arrived at Barnard Castle, with its majestic interior and grounds. My memory fails me as to what I ate, I just remember it was hot food. The stop was all too brief as I began the long climb towards Langdon Beck and onwards over Yad Moss. It was climbing here, plus eerie desolation with no cars and no lights where the wind had picked up, and I realised perhaps the biggest mistake I had made… I had no gloves.
I almost always ride solo and through the summer choose not to wear gloves, so the idea had simply not crossed my mind. The night temperatures were forecast not to drop below 10 degrees, but this was another big planning error I’d made. Weather forecasts are always based on town and cities, and out in the countryside the temperature will always drop lower. I’d also underestimated the ascent, and while it was never steep, the peak was just a few metres shy of 600 metres elevation. I had not done my homework and honestly didn’t know that England had roads that reached beyond the 500 metre peaks in Wales.
The organisers had stated that a road closure was due to come into force at 7am on Monday, and be there throughout the entire event, but riders who were expecting to be there before the closure started could ride through, while all others would need to take a diversion, which was similar in distance but had a few hundred metres more climbing.
Reaching the summit was something of a relief, with a brief stop at the top there was no view to enjoy, just a windswept peak where I put on the only extra item of clothing I was carrying at this point. The descent to a control at Brampton was fast, straight and cold. Very few times before have I wished for a few more hills to warm me up, but this would be the first of many during LEL.
Brampton was the location of my second drop bag, and it was still pitch black as I rolled in with almost 21 hours completed. I was tired, in need of some warm food and I welcomed the chance to see another person. My conversation skills were lacking with fatigue now very much set in, but again the volunteers were superb.
I used the control as my first real stop, eating plenty and I lay down for a power nap of 30 minutes. How much of that was actually spent sleeping I don’t know, but I expect only a fraction.
Waking up and rolling out the first glimpses of daylight were breaking through, giving me a boost for the ride ahead. Passing through Gretna Green, onwards onto the road that hugs the M74, this was the only section where I can recall the road surface being terrible, but I was at least thankful of a glimmer of daylight. At Moffat I had passed 600 kilometres, and I had surpassed my goal of passing the distance within 24 hours. I told myself if I was able to keep this pace up I could finish in 60 hours, although that seemed like pie in the sky at this point.
Reaching the outskirts of Edinburgh seemed to take ages. I sat down, wondered to myself what the hell am I doing and the first doubts started to creep in. A large drink to give me wings certainly did the trick for a short period, reaching the outskirts of Edinburgh and eventually crossing the old Forth Bridge. It was an incredible sight, with the new bridge to my left, the rail bridge on my right and an enormous cruise ship in the water below.
As I arrived at Dunfermline I had a huge cheer and someone was playing the bagpipes, but my focus turned to the bike. My lights would not recharge using the battery pack I had with me, and I was unsure why; although this was completely my fault, because I hadn’t tested it before leaving.
Edinburgh is a beautiful city and one that I had company in for a short time with friends and family who live there coming out to cheer me on, having followed using the GPS tracker. My conversation skills, or ability to climb even the smallest of gradients, was by now severely hampered though.
The climb towards Innerleithen realty sticks out in the memory, just a gradual gradient but a headwind that impacted me mentally more than physically. As I watched a rider in British Cycling team kit roll down and say hello as she passed, I wished so much I was going in the same direction. Innerleithen was another stop where a lie down was needed, this time a 20-minute alarm set. I’m certain no sleep was had here at all.
From Innerleithen to the next control at Eskdalemuir the distance was short, and the climbing was not anywhere near as severe as before. I was soon back in England, waving goodbye to Scotland. My head dropped, I felt sick and I had hiccups that seemed chronic and made eating and drinking more difficult. No matter what I tried – holding my breath, trying to drink out of the bottle upside down (probably not wise while cycling!) or singing aloud – nothing would stop them.
The day was rolling away from me and the final kilometres to Brampton were tough. This was it, I was stopping and I had no plans to restart. My body was hammered, my legs sore, my stomach unable to digest was I was attempting to put in.
The next control was the first that was visited in both directions, and thankfully one where I’d put a mains charger into my drop bag to put some life into the front light. I lay down and asked the staff to wake me up in 90 minutes. I did not want to think about the full 600 kilometres that remained, and while I slept the two riders who followed went ahead… but I could not care less. It wasn't a race, so why bother? Negative thoughts were taking over as my body and mind convinced me that I was done.
I awoke and still I felt terrible, and by chance asked a volunteer how long ago the pair up ahead had left: “15 minutes ago, and they barely stopped as they were worried about being caught by riders behind.”
This one line flipped my mindset, and I told myself I would be the rider to catch them. The event isn’t a competition, but I am a competitive rider and this thought drove me to get back in the saddle. I was up, dressed, packed and with a light now showing 70% charge, I was away into the darkness of the second night.
From Brampton it climbed gradually for 25 kilometres, and the whole time a stream of riders who were heading north were passing who I cheered on. Renewed freshness in my legs meant I was flying, or at least in comparison to how I felt before. I kept looking ahead, hoping to spy a red light among the bright white lights that shone towards me.
Over the steep climb of Killhope Cross it genuinely almost killed my hopes of catching them. The next big, steep climb started over Chapel Fell, and passing the 20% gradient sign I decided to push myself, and I soon began to get a glimpse of red lights. The lights were weaving and the riders were obviously aiming to ease the steep gradient. As I look back it seems evil, but my legs were strong and I rode past them in a straight line, said hello and wished them luck and continued on. I had a very sketchy experience descending at 50mph with an approaching car driver overtaking, who perhaps didn’t realise my closeness as they decided to overtake a rider in the opposite direction. Even now, I don’t know how I missed the car.
The journey south began to bite, and the distance to each control became an obsession. Anything over 100 kilometres was dreaded and from 20 kilometres to go I counted down, taking little chunks off and cheering myself on. What had felt too soon on the way up at Hessle was perfectly placed for the return. Fully stocked up I crossed the Humber Bridge and started the final 300 kilometres, which I had told myself would be flat and easy. How wrong could I be...
When your legs are tired, being able to coast just for a few seconds is extremely welcome, but there was no chance with a slight cross/headwind and the hedge-less, flat lands of the Fens. I was shouting and screaming at the top of my voice, swearing at the wind, wishing for a hedge, a hill and even welcoming a few trees to line the road.
As the day went on the heat was building to levels that were extreme, and I realised that finishing before darkness was not going to happen. I had the company of another rider for a time through the flat lands, who had come out to cheer me on. It was someone to talk to, even if the conversation was limited.
I’d been told the cycle path leaving Cambridge would be nice and easy, but it was also flat and flat = hell. Darkness started to fall and I was forced to turn on the light, although persisted with a flash setting for as long as I possibly could to save battery life. The light was set to its lowest setting, barely enough to see in front of me, and the display on the back said I only had 3 hours and 45 minutes remaining, but still had 75 kilometres to ride. The rollercoaster of emotions continued, with a few flurries of speed as I felt fantastic, only to fall off a cliff and feel I would be quicker walking up gradients that were nowhere near double figures.
The sun had set, the heat had gone and the peak temperatures seen of 32 and 33 degrees dropped below 20. These are normally temperatures I’d be comfortable riding in without anything thermal, but I was freezing, shivering and unsure how I’d finish. That final 45 kilometres from the last control was hell, and while the climbing was minimal, it never seemed flat. After wishing for hills so much during the earlier part of the day, I was now hating them and wishing for just a little section to up the speed.
The finish arrived, but there was no fanfare. A few volunteers guided me off the main road, onto a path that wound behind the school where the event started and finished. My first words were “Thank god for that”, and I was met by a volunteer who attempted to crack a joke about my time not counting…. now was not the time or the place!
I entered the building, there was hardly a sole around and my brevet card was stamped. London to Edinburgh and back to London, in 67 hours and 12 minutes. A volunteer asked if I would like some food, and if there was anything in particular they could make me. Without thinking I said scrambled egg on toast, and it was simply incredible. Thank you!
The choice of a 50 metre walk for a cold shower or 400 metres for a warm shower was not a difficult decision, and shortly after I was able to lie down and sleep properly for the first time in days.
There will undoubtedly be riders who will criticise my competitiveness, and what became a desire to be the first back. Like any Audax the LEL is not a race, and it never felt like one, but for me having that urge was what drove me to finish. I am competitive by nature and that is my motivation. Had I simply decided to ride back at a slower pace, the chances are I would not have finished at all. The journey and the adventure of LEL is one that will stay with me, and without a doubt one of the biggest challenges I have taken on to date. I like pushing my limits, seeing what I’m capable of and bringing myself back from a point of despair.
It’s a big box ticked, the event completed and as I type this, I have no plans to do it again. Paris Brest Paris in 2023 perhaps, but I’m certainly not trying to put anyone else off. The experience was simply incredible and one that I would recommend to any cyclist who is looking to push themselves, and see the country from a different perspective.
I'd also like to say an absolutely massive thank you to all the staff, volunteers and other riders who made LEL so special.
Regardless of your expectations or speed, these are some tips I believe will benefit anyone looking to complete an endurance challenge. Not necessarily as long or tough as LEL, but anything that will push your body way beyond ‘normal’ ride distances.
I had tested almost all of my equipment, but my one mistake of not testing the battery charge on my light was nearly disastrous. Remember the 5 P’s: Piss Poor Planning, Poor Performance!
Not just the basic things, such as drinking when thirsty, eating when hungry and resting when tired, but go a little deeper. The human body is incredible and it has a great ability to feed you information. If you're craving salty food, you are most likely low on sodium. If you desire a cooked chicken, you probably need some protein. When completing ultra-endurance events the source of your energy is almost irrelevant, as the lower intensity will mean the stomach can digest most things when riding. Don't completely ignore sports nutrition though, as this can be a quick way to get a dense carbohydrate source.
Thinking of the entire challenge can be overwhelming, but each little section completed will mean you are a little closer to the finish. The next kilometre, the top of the next climb, that milestone distance, whatever suits best. Keep the milestones coming and reward yourself for completing each one.
…but try to overcome them. It is almost inevitable that you will have issues of some kind during a multi-day cycling challenge. For me it was the light charge issue and lack of gloves. Try to think ahead, plan a resolution and if plan A won't work, what is plan B? For me, had I not been able to charge the lights I would have been looking for a bike shop along the route to buy one.
I have learned from previous mistakes all too often, when having a down moment and the body is saying to stop. No matter how hard you’ve trained, how much effort has gone into the prep and event to that point, your mind can bypass all of that. Battle against the negative thoughts, as you will almost always regret a decision to stop.
Matt is an endurance nut who loves big rides and big events. He's a former full-time racer and 24hr event specialist, but now is also happy riding off-road on gravel bikes or XC mountain bikes and exploring the mountains and hills of Mid Wales.