LEL and PBP – how do they compare?

That’s a question many riders asked me on LEL 2017 when I mentioned that I’d ridden PBP two years earlier. As I’ve only done both brevets once, in 2015 and 2017, my experience may be not overly representative.  But I’ll still give it a try comparing them rides.

As this is going to be a long post, I’ll try to give a short answer first. Both Paris-Brest-Paris and London-Edinburgh-London are ruddy fantastic events. Taking part and finishing was among the best experiences I’ve ever had. From the outside, PBP and LEL may look very similar – you ride your bike for a bloody long way. But in fact, both events are rather different: PBP is a party, while LEL is an adventure.

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Which one is harder?

This is more tricky to answer than you might think. For an outside observer, LEL probably looks tougher, as it is longer. When reaching the finish at LEL, I had 1425 km on the clock, compared to “only” 1241 km at PBP. When we were ploughing into a heavy headwind on day four on LEL, with about 200km to go,  I thought: “Well, on PBP, we would be done by now.” For most people riding 200 km is utterly mad even if you have not done 1200 km beforehand.

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However, and this is meant less arrogant than it may sound, I would argue that the additional distance on LEL eventually does not matter a lot. Being able to ride PBP means making sure your bike is comfortable enough for you to spend 18 or so hours a day in the saddle without inordinate suffering. Sure, that’s a big ask and requires months if not years of preparation. But once got there, another 200 km really don’t move the needle.

Moreover, LEL is easier in one important way. The minimum speed required to finish in time is 12.3 km per hour, compared to PBP’s 13.6 km per hour. This may not sound much of a difference but over these really long distances, it does actually matter quite a lot. Assume PBP was ridden with LEL’s minimum speed. In that case,  the time limit would be almost 100 hours, rather than 90. The big upside on LEL is that  you can get significantly more sleep, without bumping into the time limit. It’s also easier to make good time even if you’re in deficit. As long as you keep moving at 13 kph (and go into the right direction), you gain time.

Moreover, the organisers of PBP – the venerable Audax Club Parisienne – takes intermediate control times really seriously. If you are too slow along the way, you run a big risk of being disqualified even if you were later able to make the time good. And the minimum speed for the way out to Brest is higher than for the the return leg.

At least in 2017, the organisers of LEL were rather generous about intermediate control times. Months ahead of the start, Danial Webb had said no rider with a reasonable chance of finishing in time would get scratched if he went into time deficit on the way. This made it possible to sleep in the first night even for afternoon starters, who had not yet built a big enough time buffer.

How do the hills compare?

On paper, both rides are actually not that different. My Garmin clocked about 12 235 meters of total ascent on PBP and 12 179 meters on LEL. (My Strava files for LEL 2017 and PBP 2015  have slightly different numbers.) As I tweaked my route and avoided the Howardian Hills between Pocklington and Thirsk on both ways (going off route is allowed on LEL but not on PBP) most riders climbed a tad more. Per kilometer, LEL is actually a bit flatter.

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It certainly does not feel like this when riding. The key difference is that PBP is constantly undulating but only has one serious hill, the Roc’h Trevezel close to Brest. At around 350 meters, it is not particular high, the gradient is rather mild, and with 250 meters of elevation gain, the ascent is not really that long either.

In contrast, 240 or so km on LEL are pancake flat, and the bulk of the climbing is packed into a 550 km loop in Northern England and Scotland. The bit from and to Barnard Castle, which starts at kilometer 420 and ends at kilometer 980, is amazingly beautiful but rather lumpy.

And if you’re unlucky, the weather conditions particularly in Scotland can be really challenging. I got drenched three times on the Northern loop, and after turning around in Edinburgh temperatures in the afternoon dropped from 18 to 8 degrees within 10 minutes while a bad weather front came past.

Compared to the really grim conditions some riders had to cope with while climbing over Yad Moss, I was relatively lucky. In his epic blog post, Allen O’Leary, who came through a few hours later than I on his way back south, describes this experience:

“Waiting outside,  there was a rider there who sounded like Macbeth with his prognostications of doom; ‘It’s going to be three hours of hell up there…’

(…) By the time I reached the top of the road works it was awful. Strong headwinds, driving rain, no visibility.

(…) It really was three hours of hell. The rain drove sweat deep into my eyes so I was riding with my eyes screwed up. I couldn’t stop to put on more clothes (and what was the point?) and I was desperately hoping that the fairy of pneumatic ill would stay a long way away. There were fences but barely any shelter. It was not a good time for anything to go wrong, it would have been very difficult to keep warm enough had anyone to stop.

Even worse was having to pedal downhill. I kept looking disbelievingly at my Garmin. I felt like I was going up, and yet I was descending. (…)

It was an intense few hours that’s for sure and arriving back at Barnard Castle people were shaking their heads and muttering phrases like ‘worst weather ever’. (…) That 80k from Brampton had taken a very long time indeed, over five hours with the stop at Alston.”

The odds of facing such character-building conditions on PBP are much lower. Sure, the infamous 2007 edition must have been a washout, and the weather in mid-August in Brittany and Normandy can be fickle. But all three most recent editions of LEL – 2009, 2013 and 2017 – came with a lot of really grim weather. This is unlikely to be just a fluke.

Go on then and tell me about the wind.

As mentioned above, about 240 or so kilometers of LEL are pancake flat. It’s the bit between of St. Ives and Louth, which is called “The Fens”. At parts, it feels like you’ve taken a wrong turn and ended up in the Netherlands.

The Fens – also known as the Flatlands – are notorious for their winds. There are little if any trees and houses that break the wind, and a southerly wind is the prevailing one. This means you can expect a tailwind on the way out and a headwind on the way back.

On the way back, into the headwind of the Fends. Game faces all around, but Agi is just smiling away. Luckily we were not pressed for time and could take it easy.

In 2013, slower riders crossed the Fens on the way back on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year, and due to the strong headwind that experience became known as “the hairdryer day”. In 2017, it wasn’t hot, but apparently it was even windier.

Many riders who did not make use of the tailwind on the first day and failed to bank time were caught out by the headwinds on the way back. And apart from the extra effort, there are few things as frustrating and mentally challenging than riding into a headwind, especially if you are pressed for time.

In Normandy and Brittany, the prevailing winds are westerly. This means you can expect a headwind on the way out, when you are still fresh, and a tailwind on the return leg. This is much easier to cope with mentally. Moreover, the landscape in France is not as exposed as it is in the Fens, as woods, hills and buildings are breaking the wind and give shelter. In 2015, wind wasn’t an issue at all on PBP. You may be unlucky in 2019, but with regard to LEL 2021, you can take a bad headwind on the way home for granted.

How is the atmosphere?

I would argue that this is probably the biggest difference between PBP and LEL. Both brevets “feel” completely different. France is one of the world’s biggest cycling nations, and PBP is an event which is older than the modern Olympic games and the Tour de France.

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The first edition was held in 1891, five years earlier than the 1896 games in Athens and twelve years ahead of the first tour.  While the start and finish, as well as the route changed a lot over the decades, most control towns have remained the same.

The big heritage, combined with the love for cycling, is really what makes PBP. It’s an event as important for the people living along the route as it is for the riders. The smaller the villages get in the west, the bigger the parties along the road become. Thinking of the constant shouts of “Allez! Allez!” and “Bonne courage” gives me goosebumps at the time of writing. People along the route not only cheer you up but many offer water, cake and coffee for free, be it night or day.

Here’s how I experienced it in 2015:

“During the first night, when I was running low on water, three girls were standing at a lonely roundabout. I stopped and asked them “Avez-vous d’eau?” “Mais bien-sur!” they replied and filled my bottle. They also insisted on giving me chocolate, and a big hug.”

Stopping at a small village party in St. Martin des Pres on the way back will forever be one of my fondest memories of PBP. It was an early evening, a few villagers were playing live music, the barbeque was on and the draft beer was cold. Unfortunately, my schoolboy French is really ropey, so my communication with the villagers was rather restricted. But you don’t need much more than a smile, and a “merci” to bond with people.

Villaines on the way back was absolutely packed with local residents. There was an inflatable arch at the control, an announcer on the tannoy, music. It really felt like the Tour de France.

You don’t have this type of spectacle on LEL at all. In five days, I counted five different groups of people cheering us on from the roadside. On PBP, you’ll see more within the first five minutes.

Moreover, as LEL is four times smaller than PBP, and at least in 2017 the start times were much more stretched out to reduce the load for controls, you’ll see significantly fewer riders on the road. On PBP, I rode alone for a few hours in night two and three, otherwise you’re always surrounded by other cyclists. On LEL, I rode half a day basically on my own – the 170 or so kilometers from Edinburgh back to Alston. I normally love to ride with other people and think the social side of randonneuring is one of the biggest attractions of the sport. But after more than two days of chatting to other people, I thoroughly enjoyed being for myself, in particular as the Scottish landscape was just utterly marvelous.

What about the controls?

A major difference between both events is that LEL is an “all inclusive” event. The entry fee – 319 pounds in 2017 – is significantly higher than PBP’s, but includes all the food along the way, as well as all other amenities at the controls, be it a bed, a shower or help from a cycling mechanic. In the runup to LEL, some people moaned about the seemingly high price tag, but in fact it was a steal. I barely spent any money outside controls over five days.

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On PBP, you have to pay for everything, be it a sandwich, a bed or a towel. Everything is cheap as chips, but you constantly have to carry cash (Don’t even think of trying to pay by card!), preferably small change. The even more annoying side effects are the queues. The till often is the biggest bottleneck. This is just one of many examples showing that LEL is more efficient than PBP, which obviously partly owes to its smaller scale.

Is the route signposted?

PBP yes, LEL no.

Getting navigation right is usually one of the biggest challenges in Audaxing. You cannot make it to Arrivee if you have no idea where you are or where you should be going. Unlike on Sportives, Audaxes are usually not signposted. You get a route sheet, which describes the route in a very condensed way (“ L@T $London”, “SO @ RBT” = “left at T junction, signposted London, Straight on at roundabout), and a GPS track.

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Most people these days navigate with GPS devices, and many are regularly driven to despair. All users of Garmin cycling devices – the so called “Edge” series – are time and again suffering from some kind of technological failure. Either the device won’t boot, the route won’t load, the navigation doesn’t work, the device crashes, the recorded track is lost or the batteries won’t charge. (Often, Edge users are experiencing a combination of such issues.)

Another pretty fundamental flaw with Garmin is that their mounts are pretty shite, and now and then devices just fall off the bike. In night four, in the Lincolnshire Wolds at around 2am, I passed a rider sifting through the ditch, looking for his Garmin. I later read after two hours, he has given up, unsuccessfully.

Another heart-wrenching tale of Garmin snafu is from Shravani Sen, an Indian rider brought down partly by navigation problems. This is how she describes her issues:

“I started losing my way and every now and then Garmin told me I was off route! Now I also had laminated sheets of the extremely detailed (too damn detailed if you ask me) route sheet and frankly, couldn’t figure which of my turns was wrong. So I had to really junk looking at that sheet for any guidance and the mystery game with Garmin started. I would turn my cycle towards a different direction to get Garmin to endorse the ‘route found’ path but it played truant for the rest of my ride.”

One of her key  conclusions:

“Navigation is a black box for me. I have a tendency to get lost and for the life of me cannot differentiate between the NW and SE! And despite reading many blogs on this very aspect being the bane of riders on LEL, I didn’t prepare enough. And no Garmin, no route sheet will help. For those riding there from other countries, this is a challenge and I will be very grateful for a creative solution.”

I found it also fascinating to read that navigation seems to be less of an issue when Randonneuring in India. Shravani writes:

“Unlike in India, where the roads on brevet route are mostly straight, there were quite a few minor turns, mostly around small hamlets, villages or towns. And very unlike my country of course, there was not a soul around to ask for help. Even cars who I was trying to wave down would just zip past.”

PBP is much easier in this respect. The whole route is properly signposted, and the signs are using reflective material, so you can easily spot them at night. Moreover, as there are four times as many riders, on a route 200 km shorter, you’ll be barely on your own anyway.

(While it’s very hard to take a wrong turn on PBP, I actually managed to do so, after 50 or so km from the start. A sign was posting north, and me and my riding partner immediately noticed we went off route but wondered if the route got tweaked in the last minute. We carried on to the next junction to check out if there was another sign, which wasn’t. We turned back, and re-joined the proper route. The whole episode cost us 15 or so minutes.)

On LEL, only the last few kilometers ahead of the controls are signposted. Spotting the first sign is  always a nice moment, as it’s nice evidence that it’s not far anymore. But even the signs are no guarantee you’ll find the control. One kilometer or so after having left  Louth going north at night, I met a couple of Italian ladies who were quite desperate to find the control.

(My own approach to navigation is digital, but keeping it as simple as possible. I use a Garmin GPSmaps 64s device, which isn’t a cycling-specific device but made for hiking in general. It’s a bit bulkier, but takes AA batteries (which, in a pinch, can be bought at any garage or off-licence), has a really good display which can be read in the brightest sunlight, and with very little background lighting at night, has buttons rather than touch screens so it is easy to use even with winter gloves, and is just super reliable. These days, I normally don’t even bother to take a printout of the route sheet with me.)  I have been using the 64s, and its predecessor, the 60csx, for almost a decade, and they never let me down. I am not using turn-by-turn directions, but just use it as a digital map, which shows my position and has the track highlighted. I follow it visually. I might buy a Wahoo Elemnt as a backup though. As for the mount, I use RAMmounts “EZ on/off” mount, which is super-light, and bomb-proof at the same time.)

Are there bag drops? 

LEL yes, PBP no. (Well, some countries or clubs organise their own backdrop on PBP and can apparently use the controls – I saw this in Loudeac.)

On LEL, you can send kit ahead to two controls of your choice. Like many riders, I chose Pocklington (341 km  / 1080 km) and Brampton (560 km / 865 km). Brampton is the most northernly control you visit twice. If you’re riding with a friend, it may make sense to share the bag drops, so you can store kit at four different places.

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The bags have the size of gym-bags, and neither liquids nor sharp items are allowed and should not be heavier than 2.5 kg (though nobody checked). But you can get an amazing amount of stuff in them. The bag drop system, which is ingeniously organised by colour-coded bags, is a nice treat, as it allows you to reduce luggage on the bike.

Interestingly enough, I found they are not exactly necessary. Yeah, its handy, but most of my bag drop’s content did not see any use, apart from the spare bib shorts and a spare jersey. On PBP, where I carried all my luggage on the bike, my moving average was still 1 kph higher than on LEL, probably down to the hills hand headwinds in Britain. It’s really amazing how little kit you actually need on a little adventure like this.  Probably the best thing about the LEL bag drops is that you can keep the bags, and they are really nice souvenirs.

(note to self for 2021: Bring two cord locks to put on the bags. They have a tendency to open inadvertedly. A helpful volunteer showed me how to  put at knot into mine, so no contents could all out. But opening the knot is always quite a faff.)

Are there bike mechanics at the controls?

Yes on both rides. At PBP controls, I think it’s mainly local bike shops manning the work stands. On LEL, mechanical help is provided by volunteers. You won’t believe it, but I actually had to use the mechanics on PBP as well as on LEL for the very same reason: my rear gear cable started to fray. On PBP, I was riding a Specialised Roubaix with Shimano 105 Sti levers, which had done about 7000 km when the shifting started to play up.

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On LEL, I was riding my lovely Mercian Vincitore Special (steel is real!), which had done just about 5000 km. After my PBP experience, I had made a note to myself to change the cables before LEL. In early July, I  brought the bike to the shop which built it and asked for a full service, including a change of gear cables ‘if necessary’.

Well, what a schoolboy error… The bike shop concluded the cables were fine. Luckily, I had taken two spares with me, and the wonderful Colin Chadfield who volunteered as a mechanic at Thirsk gave me my gears back within 15 minutes.  Colin also showed me how to replace the cables myself in the future.

But I was rather lucky. Colin clearly knew what he was doing. The cable started to go in the afternoon, just 15 or so km north of Thirsk, rather than at say 2 am in the middle of nowhere in hilly terrain and heavy rain. Moreover, the cable had not snapped completely. In that instance, removing the knackered cable might have taken ages.

I was also lucky that Colin wasn’t too busy when I rocked up with my 20 speed turned 2 speed machine. While I did not lose any time at all on LEL due to the cable comedy, I had to wait a bit on PBP, as there was a bit of a queue for the mechanic. It wasn’t too bad either, and I had a shower while waiting, but the 45 minutes or so I lost had definitely better be spent on sleep. And if you’re close to the wire anyway, mentally or time-wise, a fraying gear cable may still do you in.

What I’m trying to say is this: despite my good experiences with mechanics both on PBP and LEL, don’t bank on them. Make sure to start with your bike in the best possible condition. New tyres. New chain and, if necessary, new cassette. New gear cables (take my word for it).

Moreover, it pays not to be riding an overly special bike. If you’re using racing wheels with 16 spokes, hydraulic disk brakes, or the latest permutation of electronic gearshiftig (but left your charger at home), the mechanics might not be able to help you after all. Alain, who did an incredible job volunteering as a mechanic at Barnard Castle, has summarised his take-home points on YACF. His advice for LEL riders is really worth a read. It’s also worth to keep in mind that the LEL mechanics are volunteers, sacrificing their holiday for you. They might just have worked a night shift, be very tired and just not really keen on fixing your broken Garmin mount.

Do you have to qualify?

On PBP: yes. Non LEL: not. Not officially at least.

If you’re reading this, and stuck with the post thus far, odds are you’re well familiar with the PBP qualification drill. You’ll only make it to the start line in Paris if you’ve finished a so-called Super Randonneur (SR) series during the same season. In plain English, this means you’ll have to ride a 200k, a 300k, a 400k and a 600k ride between January and about June. All those rides have to be validated by Audax Club Parisienne (ACP).

That’s quite an ask, as it will consume a few weekends, and you’ll have to get in shape for the qualifiers as well. The upside is that if you manage qualification, you should be in pretty good shape for PBP, riding a tried and tested machine.

Danial Webb, the sterling supreme organiser of LEL,  treats riders like adults. Anyone can enter, regardless of having won the Transcontinental Race or just having ridden to pub, and no one is forced to prove his training effort. One advantage of this approach is that the red tape for the organisers is much smaller. Validating thousands of rides, and keeping a proper record, must just be an utter faff. You probably need a Napoleonic administration to stay on top. Danial’s laissez faire approach is much more British. Remember Adam Smith was born in Kirkcaldy in Scotland and taught in Edinburgh.

The failure rates on PBP and LEL are not that different. Historically, one in five riders on both events packed. LEL 2017 was a bit of an outlier though. About a third of the riders bailed along the way, and another 10 percent or so finished out out time. That’s a remarkably result. The weather surely played a role. Conditions up North were a bit damp at times, and on the way south we encountered those famous “Lincolnshire hills”  (i.e. headwinds in the Fens). But as much as I like to talk up my own achievements, I seriously doubt that the conditions were that bad. For instance, the night temperatures on the first two nights of PBP were much worse than anything I experienced on LEL.

I think many LEL starters just had no real idea of what to expect in terms of hours on the bike, and sleep (or lack of thereof). Riding a SR series beforehand surely helps to get a better grasp of the task awaiting you on a brevet of 1200 or more km.

However, despite the overall higher success rate on PBP, I did have the impression that there were way more utterly inexperienced riders on the road in France. In night three and four, one frequently meets those “riding zombies”, who are literally all over the place and are putting themselves, and others, to real danger. I saw few if any of those riders on LEL, but that may also be due to the fact that I apparently was way ahead of the bulge after two days.

And the beauty of LEL is that you meet riders like Fiona, a young German. I first saw her south of Edinburgh when I did not know neither her name nor her nationality.

I was riding on my own into drizzle, a headwind, up a hill. A group of three passed me. MM starting pen, hence they had left Loughton 2.5 hours after me. Gosh, those guys were quick. A woman was leading the group, with two blokes – one on a lovely blue Mercian – on her rear wheel.

I tried to latch on to the trio, but after a few minutes concluded the pace was too brisk and dropped back.  I met them again on the same day, at around midnight, leading a peleton into Brampton (I recognise a Mercian even in the dark). This time, I joined the group. A few km before Brampton, a few of them engaged into a reckless – and with the benefit of hindsight – utterly hilarious town sign sprint, that almost ended in a mass crash.

A short but steep ramp – some kind of  mini-bridge across a creek – that was invisible in darkness slowed down the first riders. Those right behind almost crashed into the one’s in front. One only avoided coming off  skilfully evading to the inside of the bike in front, using the space between the other bike which was barely wider than the width of the handlebar. A perfect, beautiful and breathtaking manoeuvre that prevented a crash.

I was 10 meters behind, and furious at the time, as I thought: if those guys hit the deck, I’ll too. “Getting engaged in a mass pileup in the middle of nowhere in night three in Scotland is the least thing I need.”, was my thought. And my response was a wholehearted shout (“For F*cks Sake!!!” ).

I met the Mercian rider a day later in Louth on the way and chatted to him. As I mentioned the Brampton scene and the amazing avoidance manoeuvre, his reply was something like this: “Oh, that was the girl. She’s a bloody amazing cyclist.” I assumed she might be was a semi-professional rider. On the next day, I saw her again, this time in the Fens, pulling a group of 10 or so into headwind hell. I rode to the front of her train and started talking to her. Turned out that despite her strong American accent, she actually was German and we soon switched to our mother tongues.

Without revealing my crash angst, I mentioned the nightly sprint into Brampton and the near miss. “Oh, this was just utterly scary!”, was her reply. Turned out she was on her first Audax ever, and had mostly done touring and triathlon beforehand. She only heard about LEL as a friend who thought her previous riding was mad teased her about it. And she only made it to the start line because Danial had decided to give priority to women when dealing with the waiting list. (It’s probably unnecessary to mention that she finished in a way better time than I ever dreamt about.)

Judged by that episode, and similar tales of long-distance novices smashing earlier editions of LEL, it may be tempting to think a PBP-style training regime in the run-up to the ride is unnecessary. But that would be the wrong conclusion. For long-distance newbies, the freedom that comes with Danial’s laissez-faire approach actually creates a big responsibility. Even if preparation is non-mandatory, it is bloody important. If LEL is your first proper Audaxing experience, and you’re not very young, very fit and very determined, odds are that you end up in the 34 percent of “DNF” (Did Not Finish). It will surely become extremely difficult to have a successful LEL, not to mention an enjoyable one.

So how did you prepare, Olaf?

My training regime was quite similar, but not identical, to the one before PBP. In September 2014, I had started a challenge set up by Audax UK called the “Randonner Round the Year” (RRtY). The basic idea is to ride an Audax of 200 k or more in every calendar month for twelve months. A 200 a week before PBP nailed my first series, and so far I have an unbroken record. A 320 k ride in mid-July 2017 was my 35th consecutive month of RRtY’ing, and LEL itself sealed the third year.

Starting a RRtY is my default recommendation to any newbie toying with the idea of having a shot PBP or LEL. It has several advantages.

Firstly you learn a whole lot during the first 12 months about how your body your mind and your bike behave during those many hours in the saddle. This routine of riding swiftly but not too fast, and trying to reduce stopping time to the absolute minimum is not rocket since at all, but it takes time to get used to.

Secondly, winter rides can really be grim. In London, you are down to about 8 hours of daylight between December and February.  (It’s rarely sub-zero though, which obviously helps a lot.) This means leaving home in darkness, and returning in darkness (unless you’re really fast). That’s a good way of testing your lighting setup, and it also toughens your mind – it’s literally what the Brits call “character building”.

For a number of reasons, riding in winter is just significantly harder. When I got hit by a heavy rainstorm after heaving left Edinburgh, I thought: “Well, is this all you got? That’s nothing compared to the cold, windy, dark and miserable 200 I rode with Gordon and Michael a couple of years ago.” At least it wasn’t dark, and it wasn’t overly cold.

Thirdly, by riding the whole year round is a good way of preventing your fitness from deteriorating too much during winter.

Fourthly, you’ll be never again so pleased about spring as during the RrtY.

Fifth, you’ll enter an exclusive club. Less than 700 people have officially finished one according the the Audax UK website, compared to more than ten times that number who have climbed the Mount Everest.

On top of my RrtY, I try to ride a SR series per season. As real life got in the way, I could not squeeze in a 600 in the run-up to LEL this year but did two relatively brisk (at least brisk by my low standards) 400s instead.

Besides many long rides, short and fast ones helped me a lot with regard to improving my fitness and getting my speed up. They say “the best way of getting faster is riding faster”, and this is really true. I got this piece of advice from my good friend Frank Proud, a two-times PBP veteran and Transcontinental Race finisher who did some proper research into training science.

I went to Regent’s Park at least once a week, often after work, and did one hour flat out. I eventually managed to crank out an average speed of up to 32 kph on as many kilometres. Rather slow for a proper racer, but quite good for me. I tried to do some structured high intensity interval training, but found it too dull and painful, so stopped it after two attempts. The whole thing should still be fun after all.

How are the sleeping facilities?

Fundamentally, the sleeping concept is similar on PBP and LEL. Both events use schools as controls, and the gymnasiums and some other large halls are turned into dormitories. While PBP tends to use camp beds, LEL relies on air mattresses. Entering the first PBP dorm, on the second night in St.-Nicolas-du-Pelem, was mesmerizing. With its near-darkness, and dozens if not hundreds of riders snoring and farting next to each other, I find those dorms are pretty odd places. But beggars can’t be choosers.

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The bigger question is if you can get a bed in the first place. With such large events, and hundreds of riders looking for a bed at the same time, this can be a bit of a challenge. On LEL, Louth was chock-a-block, apparently with long waits for free beds. Many riders lost quite a lot of time, while others crashed out on the floor.

As Allen O’Leary, who started at 4pm and came through Louth a few hours later than I did writes: “Riders from earlier in the day have singled it out as a stopping point and it is rammed. There is an upstairs floor that looks a collision between a sportive and WWI field hospital.” https://audaxery.wordpress.com/2017/08/14/fear-and-louthing-lel-2017/

I had never intended to sleep in Louth on the way up (243 km from London) and was unfazed by the pandemonium. With a 1:30pm start, I wanted to ride through the night until Pocklington (349km). I was a bit weary that I was crossing the longest stretch without any control, and little if any 24 hour supplies, at night, but there was little alternative. I struggle to get to sleep “early” on an Audax, as my body and mind are both too worked up.

Moreover, after a near-catastrophic sleep attack on my first 400, where I was too tired to carry on at 3am but it was too cold to sleep in a bus shelter, I always carry an emergency sleeping equipment. It consists of a super light sleeping mattress (Therm-A-Rest NeoAir Xlite), a sleeping bag inner liner and a waterproof bivvy bag. Taken together, the kit weighs just one kilo. I used it once on PBP, when all the normal beds in Quedillac on the way back were booked up. The sleeping kit’s biggest advantage is the peace of mind it gives me.

I had no issues getting a bed on LEL when I wanted one. In Pocklington at 6am in the morning, the dorm was half empty. I then slept at the Day’s Inn in Gretna, in Alston and in Louth. Apart from Quedillac, the same was true on PBP (in St. Nich and Mortagne).

So, which one did you enjoy more?

Try asking a father who of his two kids he loves more. Impossible to answer. Both are fantastic, and I definitely want to ride them again. I’m also keen on volunteering at LEL 2021.

And finally, which one did you find tougher?

No bike ride of 1200 or so kilometers with maybe three hours of sleep a night (if at all) is easy. On balance, I personally suffered less on LEL 2017 than on PBP 2015. I guess the core reason for this is more experience. Back in 2015, I just had one year of randonneuring under my belt, and all qualifiers starting with the 300k ride had been the longest bike rides of my life so far.

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In 2017, I could not only draw on the lessons learned on PBP but on three consecutive years with riding at least a 200k brevet each calendar month, and quite a few longer rides. This, combined with a lot of months with at least one really fast 60 minutes ride a week, probably increased my base fitness. Moreover, over time I got significantly better at getting more quickly through controls. On the first day of LEL, I was quite often in and out controls within 30 minutes. Compared to real pros, that’s still a bloody long time, but on PBP I never managed to be back on the bike in less than an hour. Reducing the time off the bike, combined with just two hours of sleep between the start on Sunday early afternoon and Monday night, 2 am, helped me massively in building a comfortable time buffer and getting ahead of the dreaded bulge.

Experience also helped me to change riding tactics. On PBP, after about 500 km I met a perfect riding companion,  Martyn A. on a Moulton. We rode the next 500 km together. It worked a treat, and time flew while we were chatting away. But Martyn wanted to have a shower in Brest, and I decided to wait for him. All in all, I spent at least an hour longer in Brest than I had wanted to. On LEL, I basically rode as a “free agent”, riding with old and new friends, but normally not waiting for anyone. When ready at a control, I would get back on my bike. If others joined me, fine. If not, fine too. Sooner or later, you’ll meet again on the road anyway, and you’ll meet other interesting and nice people.


20 thoughts on “LEL and PBP – how do they compare?

  1. Rajkumar Khot

    Thanks mate!
    Nicely written , very informative. cleared many of my doubts on PBP and LEL events!

  2. Thanks ….Sir
    I am looking forward postively for both these events.
    With all the fuss around.. Difficulties of Lel 2017…
    Your words of the blog are going to help us to get through it

    1. Raja Bhattacharjee

      Excellently penned down!
      Am just off PBP 2019,getting timed out at km 880.
      This article will be my Base Manual for LEL 2021.

  3. John Malamatenios

    That’s a fascintaing account, Olaf. Never having attemtped something like this, I had assumed that it was all about fitness and mental toughness. Clearly it is, but I hadn’t realised just how much knowledge, experience and learning over an extended period contribute to – and are vital to – the success of such an endeavour.

    1. you can always overthink this kind of stuff. As there are capable mechnanics at every control, no need to start with a properly serviced bike. Just do the maintenance on the go! cheaper too as mechanics are volunteers and don’t have to get paid 🙂

      on a serious note: thanks again!

  4. Interesting perspective, Olaf. As you know, I’ve not done LEL but I did put some thought into planning to do it 4 years ago (before a friend’s wedding became a more fun option). My untested thought was that the extra length makes LEL much more of a tour than a race. The top riders do PBP without sleeping while I’ve managed it as two long days with a sleep between. I expect LEL would be too long for that approach.

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  9. Alexander aramuc 300

    Hi Olaf,
    I did PBP in 2011 and 2015 and LEL in 2013. You pretty much nailed it!
    CU you in Paris, will be fun!

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  12. Ulf Brueggemann

    Very instructive and motivating. I’m just starting to enjoy longer rides around 150 k, and will definitely keep going. Thank you!

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