Mansell Street, E1 – Saturday AM – the calm before the storm!
Predictably, the excitement of LEL being almost here meant I woke ages before my alarm, and was checked out of my apartment and in our company’s office at least a couple of hours earlier than planned. The bike was still there, which was a good start – I’d assembled and test ridden it earlier in the week, and aside from a minor mistake mounting the mudguards, all seemed well. Despite the office being alarmed and having a heavy steel door, I couldn’t shake the idea that maybe it might get stolen and my ride would be over before it started. Of course the bike wasn’t stolen, and a far more mundane but significant problem plagued my preparations – the backpack when filled with the kit for my drop bags, and overnight items for the B&B felt way too heavy to cycle with. I unpacked and repacked it several times, each time pairing down the contents. Finally having ascertained that the few removed items made little real difference, I stuffed everything back in, hitched it on to my back, made one last check over bags and fittings, and wheeled Jolly out of the office.
Climbing the stairs it was impossible not to notice the gleaming new red headset cap that Yoli had had custom made for me. It had been a wonderful surprise sitting on my desk when I’d arrived a few days earlier, and was the start of a theme that would run through my whole LEL: the silent, unceasing support from family and friends back home, willing me to succeed in my big adventure. An adventure that, having been months in the planning, was now just hours away from beginning. Even though I was alone, I could feel them all with me.
In the few meters from the front door to across the street, I nearly over balanced several times – and that was just pushing the bike. I was beginning to think I should ride or walk the bike up to Liverpool Street Station and get the train to Chigwell, not far from LEL registration at Davenant School, Loughton. I resolved to at least try and ride to the top of the street and see how it went. Another problem surfaced immediately. The last minute decision to add a lock would need a revised location. In it’s current place wrapped around my seatpost it banged against the back of my legs on each of the first few pedal strokes. I unwound it and stuffed it under the webbing of my seatpost bag, giving it a few prods. Satisfied that it seemed secure, I set off again – safely in the shelter of a bus lane and able to wobble without fear of cars.
The wobbling died down surprisingly quickly, and whilst the backpack was heavy and uncomfortable, it didn’t seem to be affecting my bike handling to any significant degree. Reaching the junction at the top of Mansell Street, I made my decision, swung right onto Whitechapel High Street, and headed out towards registration by bike, as planned. Tomorrow, the proper LEL Prologue would follow this same route, so I had the double advantage of following a ready made route on the Garmin, and also refreshing my skills at riding whilst following a GPS track on the little screen mounted on my handlebar extender. The morning was already a little hot to be riding with such heavy kit, but at least the traffic was relatively light and well mannered. I made quick progress, and soon rode past my dad’s alma mater, Queen Mary College. A poignant reminder of both him, and his cycling stories which inspired me as I built up to riding longer and longer distances. It was getting crowded on the bike with so many people along for the ride – at least it would help share the effort of the hundreds of thousands of pedal strokes to come.
Before long I was passing through Stratford and past the Olympic Stadium. The previous evening I’d looked out this way. The stadium, floodlit under a stormy sky, had been hosting an athletics meet celebrating the anniversary of the Olympics. For now, the clouds had gone, but the forecast was that they would return later bringing heavy rain. I pedaled on determined to get there, complete registration, and be at the B&B before the storm broke. The remainder of the ride was largely uneventful: a moment’s lapse of attention sent me into Tesco’s car park somewhere near Leytonstone; navigating a frightening roundabout at the North Circular junction near South Woodford. With those safely out of the way, I was soon in Loughton dodging buses and taxis on the last of the suburban streets to the school. For some crazy reason I was wondering about how it would be to ride back to the office on the following Friday with work day traffic – I seemed to have blocked out the small matter of 1,418km that needed to be ridden before then.
Registration was a multi-step smorgas board which took me some moments to figure out. First up, we wound our way to a hall at the back of the school to collect our registration bags and be logged in as having registered. In the bags were our brevet cards, tags for drop bags, bike number plate, water bottle, ear plugs, and some other paraphernalia which escapes me now.
The bag-drop process was also two step – collecting empty bags on one side of a tent outside the school, and returning them filled on the other. I took my bags – yellow for Market Rasen, turquoise for Brampton – and deposited myself and back pack on the end of one of the tables in the canteen. Slowly and deliberately, I shifted the contents of the already packed carrier bags from the backpack into each drop bag, checking them a few times in the process. I’d already lightened my saddle bag load by taking out leg and arm warmers and putting them in the northern drop bag, Brampton. The weather forecast really did not make it look like I would need either of them, and so I felt reasonably comfortable with this – especially as I also had some new Adidas UV arm protectors which seemed to be managing a magical trick of cooling in the sun, and warming in the shade. After an obligatory recheck of each bag, I lugged them to the return side of the tent. I was praying that the volunteers wouldn’t weigh them as they felt somewhat borderline for the weight limit. It was hard to ignore the scales on the bag drop table, but the volunteers seemed happy with the feel of the bags, happily avoiding any inspection of their exact mass.
The last tent to be visited was to collect the LEL jersey which I had ordered. I’d already decided that wearing it during the event was just asking to jinx my ride, so it would go in the backpack as a souvenir of my participation. I had mixed feelings though as to whether I would want to wear it if I didn’t finish the ride. That problem could wait for later though. For now, with all the administration done, I decided that the rain was still sufficiently distant to allow me time for a quick raid on the canteen before making for the B&B. Opting for sweet tea, and ham baguettes, I sat and quietly munched away, savoring the busy atmosphere of the canteen. All around, other riders were chatting excitedly, eating with friends and family, stuffing their drop bags, and a steady stream of new arrivals were wandering in to start their registration process. It seemed a little surreal – the months of preparation were done. I was here, at LEL, and before long we would all be back again, kitted out and ready to start our ride.
The ride to the B&B was lovely – leafy lanes, a couple of short sharp climbs, and in no time I was at Bell Common and the Forest Gate pub came into view. Jane spotted me before I’d dismounted, and had me organized and checked in quickly. Emmerentia’s bike was propped up outside too – she’d had several trips to registration already, rather more than planned due to a lost room key. The B&B was perfect, exactly what I’d hoped for, having two essential attributes: clean comfortable rooms with nice beds; and a location just minutes from the start. Feeling very smug with my choice, I parked my bike in the safety of the garage, and went to the pub for a beer. Two beers in fact, as I was joined by Emmerentia.
I must confess to feeling slightly selfish sitting at the pub . By getting to the B&B early to avoid the rain, I had missed out on meeting Phil Whitehurst for a beer or two, albeit I hadn’t actually got any details of which pub they were meeting at, or Phil’s phone number. We had swapped many messages on YACF and Facebook regarding various aspects of our preparation. Phil’s advice had been particularly helpful in learning to use my GPS effectively. Whilst sinking my beer, I also got an SMS from Gillian and Michelle, two fellow riders from South Africa who were at registration looking to connect with with the rest of our group. It wasn’t the best of starts to the social side of LEL and I resolved to make more of an effort from this point on.
Beers consumed and pub closed for the afternoon, we retired to our rooms for a nap – or in my case, a call home (I’ve never been much of a daytime sleeper). Yoli reminded me to open the first of the cards she had prepared for me – this one marked Open Before You Start. She’d outdone herself, and a lump formed in my throat. Inside the envelope was a picture of her and Ben from our recent holiday with words of inspiration on the front, and a handwritten note on the back saying “Look at this every time you wonder why you are here!”. It was laminated too, so I could carry it with me on the whole ride even if it rained. I felt sad that they weren’t here to see me start tomorrow, but it was wonderful that they were with me in spirit – and would now be only a reach into my jersey away when I hit low spots on the ride.
We reconvened at the pub later that afternoon, and a couple more beers slid slide down all too easily as we sat debating what food option to go for that evening. Our B&B was full with other riders, and Michael and Kerri-Anne who’d traveled over from Australia for LEL joined us for the evening drinks. It transpired they were extremely seasoned audaxers, and had already cycled around 1,800km touring the UK in the weeks leading up to LEL. Suddenly I felt rather under-prepared, with my grand ambitions and handful of 260km training rides. I had to remind myself that with around 10,000Km of training over the last 18 months or so, I had plenty of distance in my legs to compensate for my lack of experience. I could do this. I had to do this – everyone back home was rooting for me.
Emmerentia and I decided that Jane’s recommendation of The George in Epping sounded pretty good, and we grabbed a taxi there to feed up before the big day. The food was good, as was the beer that washed it down. By the time we taxi’d back the storm had arrived in earnest, and we dashed through sleeting rain to our rooms – making a plan to meet around 5:30 for breakfast, and ride to the start around 5:45am. It did occur to me that five pints was rather more than the “just one“, which Penny’s text had sternly instructed me, and was perhaps a few too many the day before a long ride in hot weather. Oh well, too late now, at least I would sleep well!
All photos by author.