Thursday, August 6, 2009

LEL The Big Ride

The picture above shows the medal obtained, a post card with the official finish time and cycle number plate, complete with mud sweat and tears!

I would like to give an enormous Thank You to all who have supported me on the LEL ride. Your kind donations to ART and the comments and text messages received during this epic ride spurred me on and made it all worth while. Also to the new friends I met along the way and their camaraderie which undoubtedly played a big part in the ultimate success of finishing.
At the start of this 1400k ride I was reasonably relaxed. You have to have faith in your own abilities and the reliability of the cycle that would propel you the entire journey. I knew I had not ridden enough miles or even close to the recommended events in preparation for a ride like this but was confident enough to be on the start line. The cycle, a 10 year old +, Trek 470 was the same machine I used in 1999 for the Paris Brest Paris 1200k (Or was it !). Plagued with mechanical failure on training rides this year I was weighing up buying a new machine. The bike was showing its age and I know how it felt! Instead, so far this year the following has been replaced: Chain, two front sprockets, rear cassette, rear derailleur, complete rear wheel, rear axle, new bar tape, right hand brake and gear mechanism, all brake and gear cables (inners and outer), brake blocks, tyres and inner tubes. So it’s the same bike I used 10 years ago right ! but I will nick name it ‘Trigger’s Broom’, from Only Fools and Horses! I’ll say now that save one puncture, the bike was a dream. Smooth and precise for the entire ride without a single adjustment or hitch. Past demons now laid to rest, there were definitely two of us on this ride and if either had failed, the other would too.

On the 26 July the adrenalin was pumping and there was a familiar air of anticipation and excitement at the start. The ride is too long to fill in every detail so I will give some of the highlights.
The route appears to be reasonably flat for the first 300km but the deceptive rolling hills get you on the way back and you realise that the terrain undulates more than remembered when legs are tired and joints are aching. The scenery at first is somewhat missed as the focus is on gaining ground and time in hand. The odd glances to the side show some pretty villages and mainly vast acreage of cultivated agriculture. In the north, it changes to a few towns and villages, more picturesque scenery that has to be worked for as valleys are ascended to gain views of the magnificent Scottish hillsides blending into sky lines. The farming changes to timber and sheep as the elements are harsh. Cascading rivers and rocky landscape all improve the views as the slower climbs give time to look around and absorb the surroundings. Mother nature not only has raw beauty here but a complete arsenal of elements at her disposal to defend it and during this ride, most of it was used with dramatic effect. The views can of course only be seen when daylight and the riders on the LEL have no choice but to ride at times through the night over this already tough terrain. No street lighting is provided, just the lighting you can carry. Control points along the way where your route card is stamped have various degrees of facilities but on a first come first served basis. It is most common to sleep on a floor (carpet is a luxury), with something soft rolled up under your head. Each control closes in a strict time limit that must be adhered to so sleep is an option only when time has been banked. Food varies at controls but the high calorie burn means you will eat anything to gain the energy needed for the next leg. Crossing the Pennines in the rain I even wondered about the calorific value of the copious black slugs crossing the road. Would it be like eating wine gums or liquorice? Fortunately the next control would come to the rescue with more appetising options. This report would not be complete or I not British if I did not mention the weather. The first night it rained intensely and no matter how well dressed it soaked through or ran into every place. Days were sprinkled with a variety of blue sky, followed by rain showers, blue sky, sun, then rain again, even thunder storms and hail stones were encountered. Clothing was constantly adjusted to suit and remained damp for most of the ride, but all led to loss of time. In the North on the return from Dalkeith the wind was directly at your head, the rain fell hard and it turned bitter cold as each hill top was scaled. At Trequir my fellow riders and I had no choice but to stop as the next control was full where riders ahead took shelter and did not index on to the next section. This led to an impromptu stop but also an unexpected good night sleep on the makeshift beds created from pushing 4 cushioned chairs side by side on the stage of the village hall. At 04:00 most of the storm had passed and we hit the road again. Some low roads now under water we rode through flooding before reaching higher ground.

The dampness and unrelenting hills gradually took their toll on my right knee as sharp pains set in. I eventually lost my companions as my pace slowed to accommodate the injury. I still had hundreds of miles to go. Longer rest stops were needed.

As the sun rose and peeped between mountain tops and low lying cloud, the still morning air all around, you get an amazing feeling of, “Thank God I made it through the night”, as the first warm rays of brightness start to light your way. There was also a wonderful day with warm sunshine but this ride is more than the distance from London to Edinburgh and back, it becomes a battle for survival, against the elements and your own will power to carry on.
So what keeps me going when desperately low on energy, the pain in my knee so intense and lifting on or off the saddle has to be a planned manoeuvre due to the sharp sting each time. Well a combination of the following actually:
The immortal words of Lance Armstrong (multiple Tour de France Winner):
“Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts for ever.”
Perhaps it was the thought of loved ones routing for me and willing me on, even waiting on the finish line and I not wanting to disappoint.
Even the survival instinct that cuts in. If you stop you may not get going again, and in some of the remote night areas, that could be more severe and harmful than carrying on. (Some riders were reaching controls in a hypothermic state.)
Then it dawned on me in a philosophical way: I was doing this for a charity, despite any pains or the emotional roller coaster ride that events take you on, it is only 5 days total and the I can get off and return to normality, get warm, take some rest or tablets and recover quickly. The sufferers of dementia, Alzheimer’s, their carers and close family, cant stop the ride and get off. The emotional roller coaster has no brakes and will not be over in a few days. For them there is no end to their ride. So who was I to give in and wimp out. With that in mind, you grit your teeth, blank out the pains and dig deep.
The ride of course had many up sides too. One funny event worthy of note. The last two sections I rode with a new friend called Peter, suffering from a bad knee also. We rode together and agreed to take it as easy as time allowed to preserve our knees. Riding through St. Neots at 03:00 we found an all night petrol station, locked up but open for business. It was so cold Peter had gone through his bag looking for any garment to put on for warmth. The station attendant was happy to serve us coffee in the quiet night but would not let us in to get warm despite our best pleas. We had rolled out of the gloom from the cold fens into the lighting of the town. To us we looked normal as we were on a mission. To the attendant, what did we look like, Peter had his spare boxer shorts folded up on his head covering his ears, held on by his safety helmet while I was wearing a balaclava. Now why would the attended not let us in at 03:00 to get warm?
At the finish line, midday I arrived to cheers and claps from fellow riders and spectators, then Sarah, running out of the crowd toward me. A big hug and a kiss. A welcome that made it all worth while. Having checked in and received a goody bag I opened the beer, chinked it on the handle bars as a cheers to the iron horse for performing so well and sprayed some froth on the frame (Not quite champagne but all I had). Fighting back the welling emotion of having finally made it to the end and within time, I searched out a quiet spot where the bike was propped and tried to take in the sheer enormity of the completed challenge. A ride like this definitely makes you appreciate your surroundings and the luxuries we all take for granted every day, be it warmth, a soft bed, food, the car we drive or just life in general. We should all take the time occasionally to take stock around us and appreciate the things we work for, no matter how trivial.