03 August 2013

A Traveler's Guide: Scotland in 19 hours (LEL)

Late Thursday night I completed the 2013 version of London-Edinburgh-London, together with 800 others.  Actually some completed the ride over a day earlier, a few later on Friday morning, and several hundred of the 1000 starters not at all.

Audax UK did a fantastic job in providing controls that featured hot food, a flat place to sleep (with blanket), mostly warm showers, toilets with functioning plumbing, bike mechanical assistance, etc. for 1000 riders stretched across many hundreds of miles over a 5-day period.
Sorting the drop bags at the start -- color coding avoids misplaced bags!
The ride offered far too much to relate in a single blogpost, so let me introduce the event by featuring the middle (3rd) day.

I started riding after 2AM Tuesday from Brampton, in NW England near the Scottish border, and returned to the same location, having completed a 300km loop mostly through hills, before 10PM the same evening.

It was the hardest day of LEL; except perhaps for the others.

For the prospective visitor to Scotland, I highly recommend this bicycle loop as an efficient way to see a lot of the country.  It is best to prepare ahead with maps and a route plan, since the locals speak a different language than the English a few miles to the South.  Scottish can be very difficult to understand, if one must stop to ask directions.

We rode from Brampton to Moffat, via Lockerbie, the town made world famous by the Libyan bombing of a PanAm 747 many years ago.

From Moffat, our course took the scenic route (Route A701) and we ascended the "Devil's Beeftub". What is a "beef tub" and why might it have a demonic connection?  I did not know. Other place names were equally (or more) obtuse ... and seemed as if they must have far more distant origins. This visit, like any good 19-hour visit to a new country, inspired me to want to go back and learn more, to find out why anyone would call a location the Devil's Beef Tub?

I am told that the view from the top of this climb is spectacular.  Unfortunately, we climbed in fog and mist, which had yet to burn off.  We were not about to wait at the top for something as unreliable as the local weather.  At least we could enjoy the spectacular wildflowers along the road, and the nearby sheep.  And in the end, the fog lifted as soon as we had descended into the valley to the North.
Descending from the Devil's Beeftub toward Edinburgh

More of the countryside SW of Edinburgh
As we descended through the beautiful valley to the North, on one of the worst road surfaces of the entire 1500 kms, we passed Tweedhopefoot, then a sign identifying the "Source of the River Tweed" (and, I speculate, also the indirect source of the fabric known as Tweed, and of NYC 19th century politician William Magear Tweed a/k/a "Boss Tweed", and other tweeds).  A few miles further on we passed through Tweedsmuir.

Then it was on toward Edinburgh.  (To avoid embarrassment, please remember that it is pronounced "Edinborough" with an "o" instead of a "g" at the end.  It is a big enough city in these parts of the world so one really is expected to know this, even as a visitor!)

What can I say about Edinburgh?  Not much.  As we approached, we went up and down, and up and down, and way down, then up, before arriving at the Control, located just south of the city at Gracemount High School. I am told it is a great, historic city.  Any visitor should allow at least a few days to scratch its surface, instead of only an hour or two.  I would love to return, as soon as possible.  
My best view of Edinburgh, from a hillside well to its South
But for the road cyclist, it is not recommended.  First, there is "big city traffic":  lots of people in a hurry to get somewhere in their motor vehicles.  Second, there are hills.  Too many hills, too steep for road cycling, if the intention is to get from point A to point B without getting completely exhausted and bathed in sweat.  And third, it can rain at any time, almost at the drop of a hat.  And it did, the heavens opening up just after I left the Control, even on what had been a glorious day a few moments earlier.

From Edinburgh we headed toward the south, this time on real back roads, with low traffic volumes, and spectacular views.  We slogged from sea level back up to above 500 meters elevation, all of the climb on an exposed hillside, riding into a stiff headwind.  The headwind continued for the rest of the day.  The rain came and went.  The scenery was incredible, more wildflowers and always sheep, sheep, more sheep.
Looking back down the hill

Looking up the hill ... and into the wind
In England I saw foxes, various game birds (pheasants, etc.), bunny rabbits, sheep, cows, horses (large, race, pony, etc.) dogs, cats, frogs, snakes, etc.  In Scotland, sheep.  And more sheep.  A few cows, yes, but mostly sheep.  In England, the sheep seemed very relaxed, at peace with themselves and the world.  In Scotland, the sheep were eating frantically, with a devotion I have rarely seen in any living being engaged in any activity.  Perhaps they were the Devil's sheep?  They were bigger than English sheep, and all appeared to have been recently shorn.  They ate as if every piece of grass were the last on earth.

Unfortunately, while the sheep made an impression on me, they did not make it into my photos in any significant numbers, so you will need take me at my word, or go visit yourself!

After two long climbs into the wind, a long hard slog up a valley into the wind, and two more descents on rough roads, we finally made it to the Control at the little hamlet of Traquair.  This was the most jolly Control of the entire 5 days.  Perhaps it was the recognition that we were "over the hump" and headed home, and had just cleared one of the tougher stretches?  

Or maybe it had something to do with the little portions of Glenlivet 12-year-old Scotch whiskey offered to each rider?  The Glenlivet, made with water from the River Tweed, of course, was delicious.  Highly recommended as a souvenir of a visit to Scotland (but a bit heavy for the road cyclist to carry, so best to pick it up at the airport, in duty free).
The "valley of death" -- it looks pretty, but straight into a stiff headwind with 850kms and many hills behind already 
There were plenty more hills after Traquair, another mini-Control at Eskdalesmuir, then a lonely climb in the rain and a nice gradual descent along a river (with plenty of "rolling" hills along the way), before re-crossing the border and riding a mostly-flat stretch in the gathering dark from Longtown to Brampton, via the A7 and A5071. 

Back at Brampton, there was enough time for a few hours of sleep before the start of the 4th day.

P.S.  I should note that my one-day tour of Scotland's hills covered only the "lowlands".  The Scottish "highlands" are further to the North and, even hillier.  Audax UK is planning a Scotland Highlands, Glens and Western Isles 1300 km event for summer 2014, for anyone who wants to see more of this spectacular country.  (Warning:  That is a very hilly event, so best not tried with a fixie.)

UPDATE 1:  After the end of my trip, upon returning to Japan, my crack team of research assistants discovered, following exhaustive research using the latest in tools ("Google" and "Wikipedia"), that the Glenlivet distillery is located far to the North, in the Scottish Highlands, and is nowhere near the River Tweed.  So either I was hallucinating, or I fear that someone at the Traquair control was having a bit of fun with us outlanders when they said that the scotch whiskey came from the River Tweed.

UPDATE 2:  In case the style of this post is not immediately recognizable, please see the bestselling book "Dave Barry Does Japan" for a master humorist's attempt to write about a country he does not know at all, based upon the most superficial of impressions formed during a short visit.  See also MOB's classic 2008 post with its description of Japanese pachinko sprawl, the True Tokyo-Itoigawa Monogatari.

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