Those out and about in Yorkshire 7–12 August may have noticed a steady stream of cyclists on the roads, heading north through the county and sometime later perhaps a slower trickle heading back south. The passing riders were taking part in an amateur long-distance cycling event: London Edinburg London (LEL).
London Edinburgh London
The UK’s long-distance cycling club is Audax UK, with riders affectionately known as ‘Auks’ and the rides themselves called ‘Audaxes’ (the international equivalent rides are called ‘randonnée’s’ and the riders ‘randonneurs’).
LEL has been described as the UK’s greatest cycling adventure. It’s over 1,500km long there and back and must be completed within five days (128 hours), including stops, repairs, rest, feeding and sleeping times. Riders are required to be essentially self-sufficient as no team cars carrying spare bikes are involved! And importantly, it’s an event, not a race – finishing times and positions are not recorded.
There are support, feeding and sleeping stations along the specified route, which serve as control points (CPs). Riders are required to enrol at these as proof of passage, staffed by a veritable army of volunteers. Mattresses on the floors of village halls, school gymnasia and other such act as dormitories.
A review of post-ride comments this year soon confirms that CPs, their facilities and their volunteers were a major morale boost to exhausted and flagging participants. The CP at Hessle, north of the Humber received frequent praise!
The first LEL, an altogether smaller scale and humbler affair than the current version, was staged in 1989. It started at the Mencap Centre in Doncaster and was sponsored by the Lonsdale Road Fish Shop. Riders travelled north to Edinburgh, returned south via Doncaster on to London and back to Doncaster. Only 29 riders started the event, and 26 completed it: 25 men and one woman.
The event has been staged every four years since 1989. The 9th edition was due in 2021, but was postponed because of Covid. This year’s event included 1,500 starters with riders from all over Europe, Australia, USA, Brazil, Argentina, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia. About 60% are expected to have completed the event within the time limit.
More randonneuring: Paris Brest Paris
Paris Brest Paris (PBP) – a 1,200km event from Paris to Brest on the Atlantic coast of Brittany and back to Paris – was first run in 1891 and is probably the oldest cycling event still in existence today. It has a special place in the calendar and is run every four years. Once promoted by Henri Desgrange, also responsible for Le Tour de France, part of the original intention may have been to demonstrate the utility and range of the bicycle.
PBP attracts a large entry, usually over 6,000 amateur riders from all around the world. The entry process involves riders completing a series of qualifying rides at 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km. When I first read about it, I wanted to take part, but failed at the second hurdle finishing the qualifying 300 ride ‘Hors Delai’ (outside the time limit).
Why do they do it?
What motives people to take part in such events? Perhaps there’s a clue in the words of Emil Zátopek, the famous long-distance runner, who said:
“If you want to win something, run 100 metres. If you want to experience something, run a marathon.”
Certainly, the physical challenge was one reason I became an Auk, but there was also the social element and the sheer enjoyment of being outside. Rides are often on lanes and byways with birdsong in the hedgerows, close to nature – and in my experience, the climbs were tough, but the views could be spectacular. There were some sublime moments.
There is also a certain ‘mindfulness’ and relaxation in randonneuring. Work and life problems are, for the duration of the ride at least, set aside; there are more pressing concerns, such as pedalling, navigation, repairing punctures, and other mechanical issues.
Once again, it’s worth checking the numerous social media posts from this year’s London Edinburgh London, as these give more clues as to why people do it. Many include heartfelt thanks to the volunteers, references to the friendships forged along the route (and the help and encouragement they received from fellow riders and others along the way), and admiration and concern for riders who are struggling but persisting anyway. There is a strong sense of community.
There are also posts from those returning overseas after the ride, echoing these sentiments and saying how much they had enjoyed the ride, the scenery and the experience. They left for their home countries with a deeper, first hand, understanding of the beauty of ours.