Volunteering at LEL 2013

36 hours without sleep would be okay if I was riding my bicycle, but instead I was stood in the road waving glow-sticks in the air like a demented aircraft Marshall.  I took time off work to volunteer at the Thirsk Control of the London-Edinburgh-London Randonnée, helping up to 1000 cyclists find their way safely into the school grounds during the night.

This started for me when I knew I didn’t want to ride LEL this year; but also wanted to help out and experience some of the carnival of this massive audax held in the UK once every 4 years.  London-Edinburgh-London is an 870 mile (1400 km) ride which attracts cyclists from all over the world to ride scenic and memorable terrain up and down England and Scotland.  Having done a few audaxes now, and being enthusiastic about helping others enjoy it as much as I do, I felt volunteering was the best thing I could do.

I signed up with Lynn and Aiden Hedley’s team at the Thirsk site because it was the easiest to get to from Stockton-on-Tees.  I couldn’t offer a full week, but booked myself a couple of days off so that I could see the riders pass through on their way northbound.  Sunday 28th July arrived and after the morning service at church, followed by serving tea and coffee, it was time to drive down to Thirsk and pitch the tent.  My son was coming to help out too, and we planned to camp one night.

It was time for the safety and site briefings, so all 50 volunteers gathered in the school restaurant.  We were also issued with our distinctive red t-shirts and lanyards.  After this we had a series of training courses on everything from control booking in, bed booking, bag drop handling, sandman roles and marshal duties.

Team Briefings in the Restaurant
Bag drop facilities – all labelled with the rider’s numbers and computerised
We checked the rota for our roles and duties – Amiee Hedley had successfully assigned names to tasks.
Learning the Control Check-In system
The sleeping facilities for up to 250 cyclists

After the training everyone busied about gathering blankets, preparing food, making arrangements and… as the time grew close for the riders to reach us we started to head outside to wave and cheer.  I headed all the way out to the main road and stood looking into the distance for the silhouette of a rider in the distance.

The “Control” signpost
Mary-Jane and daughter Beth – outside marshalling riders

After an hour waiting and looking down the road, the first group of five riders appeared!  It was 7:33pm, they had left London at 5:30am, this means they had taken just over 14 hours to get the 400km from London the Thirsk – really amazing.  And they all looked so fresh.

We expected a little gap after these chaps, so I headed in to talk to them.  Anco de Jong from the Netherlands was enjoying the soup and pasta and looking remarkably fresh.  I asked what his sleep plan was, and he replied that he’d be trying to get back to Thirsk southbound for midnight Monday, have a couple of hours sleep and then carry on.

Anco de Jong enjoying soup and pasta in Thirsk (northbound) – Sunday 28th July 2013

Heading back outside I met another rider swooping in to Thirsk
Heading back outside I realised that the stream of riders had started as I saw this chap come swooping into the check point.  I now had my safety gilet, and I was armed with bottles of energy drink (beer).  Outside on the road it was beautiful as the sun was setting.  There were electrical storms over to the east where the riders would be coming from, so I imagined a lot of tired riders keenly looking for the entrance to Thirsk.

A beautiful evening in Thirsk

I cheered and waved at riders for the next couple of hours until it started to get so dark I was having difficulty seeing riders down the road, and I realised I needed some form of torch, so dashed back into the control to look for lighting.  Lynn gave me a couple of glow sticks, and I asked my son if he’d like to come and join in the waving and cheering – which he did.  On the way back out we noticed this fully-faired recumbent.

Now my son and I were in the dark of the night, and with Beth the three of us danced up and down waving glowing sticks in the air so that arriving riders would know where the entrance to the control was.

But as the night drew on, and we reached midnight, I decided to take Edward back and tuck him up in the tent.  We grabbed some sandwiches and I said goodnight to him.  On the way out I noticed that a companion from previous rides had reached Thirsk – Mike, sometimes known as “bikey-mikey”.

Mike, the bearded one on the left.
Back out at the roadside I had a couple more beers and Beth had given me the flashing red torch to accompany the glow sticks… Reg, a rider I’d met on the BCM arrived and recognised me by the side of the road, which was a wonderful meeting.  Happy, I settled in for a long night, occasionally sending facebook updates:

2am… Constant stream of cyclists arriving at Thirsk! Excellent!

3am and the river of cyclists arriving at Thirsk northbound continues. I’ve been stood in the road waving light sticks like a maniac so they can identify the entrance to the control easily. Had an interesting chat with the Police. Turns out I’m not doing anything illegal. Wow.

4am. The riders coming into Thirsk now have been riding for 22hrs. Pity the first thing they see is my face. Hahahahahahbwahahbwahahaha!

4:45am… The sun has risen and there is no longer a need for a loony waving glow sticks around. Coffee and then onto control duties. It has been wonderful seeing all the happy smiling faces of the cyclists northbound.

I had now completed a night shift celebrating each rider’s arrival, but now it was time to head inside and do my shift on the control log in desk.  But first I had some breakfast and updated facebook because it was really nice to see Chris and Lindsay who I’d failed to complete an arrow with at Easter.

Breakfast in Thirsk Control northbound conversation with a fresh and chipper couple who were the first tandem in last night, and first woman too… — with Chris Smith and Lindsay Clayton.

I sat behind this laptop for the next five hours, greeting riders at the rate of about 120 per hour.  Clicking them in online, stamping brevet cards and writing the time they’d arrived.  There was quite a bit of banter with these riders, some complaining about the hills so far.  Sadly I was starting to meet people who were abandoning.  The hardest of these was when Jasmine realised she couldn’t go on.  She had been experiencing extreme stomach cramps and was unable to eat properly.  She said she was strong enough to go on, but that the pain was intense and as she decided to abandon we both started to cry.  It was an immensely emotional time.  I was being cheerful and encouraging to the riders arriving, and yet was empathising with Jasmine and the others who simply couldn’t make it any further.  There were bad knees, broken bikes, and tired riders.  One rider had ridden into a stationary car due to exhaustion.  Another couple from France had a broken handlebar that needed fixing.  So many people had broken spokes.  Lights and batteries were failing.  One gentleman’s GPS device had lost the track files and he didn’t know where to go – Aiden helped him get a GPX file downloaded from the internet and uploaded to his electronic routesheet.

In the midst of this, Tim Taylor arrived, shortly followed by Andrew Wills arrival, both looking as happy as always and clearly enjoying every minute of the event.  I finished checking-in and as it was approaching lunchtime, knocked off to find Edward and get the tent packed away.

Andy Wills at Thirsk Control – July 29, 2013
And this was the end of my volunteering, I had to get back to work but I had pulled an all-nighter and enjoyed it so much.  I know that Lynn, Aiden and the team will be continuing for the next couple of days – Lynn and Aiden had no sleep Sunday night either, but I’m hoping they’ll get some rest before the southbound riders start to pour in.  They have until midnight by Anco’s reckoning.

It was mid afternoon when Edward and I were finished packing up and about to leave.  Riders were still in the restaurant, catching up on some rest before taking on the next section to Barnard Castle.

shhh… rest needed

So we had finished.  Outside was a lovely day.  And it is my Birthday, what a great way to party.  Lynn and the team had bought me a cake – in the midst of all the confusion of the control, they had found time to buy a cake and get a card signed – truely amazing people and I’m thoroughly proud to have worked for them on the Thirsk Control of LEL.  I’ll be back in 2017, God Willing, and next time I’ll be riding.

[EDIT: I heard that Anco de Jong arrived back in London, completing LEL, at 10:55pm on Tuesday 30th July 2013.  An absolutely amazing ride.  Of course, we remember that this is not a race, it is an audax]

[EDIT 2: LEL 2017 is live!]


  1. Hi Graeme, what a lovely read that was and what a way to spend your bithday! Was great meeting you at the control in Thirsk and am pleased you were part of my adventure.

  2. Hi Graeme, I just came across your write-up and what a great read. Its fascinating to hear the volunteers angle. I rode LEL and my over-riding feeling was of incredible gratitude for the fantastic organisation and the sheer commitment of so many people, giving up so much of themselves so that others could enjoy the ride. Frankly, before the ride I wondered who would bother to help and why on earth they would do it. However, as the event unfolded and again as I read your blog, I came to better appreciate the reward that comes from committing to others. I may ride LEL 2017 but if not, I will join in as a volunteer. Thank you for helping me to enjoy LEL 2013.

  3. I can’t believe i missed this write up until now.

    Thank you, and big thanks to all the volunteers, thank you for making it a wonderful experience.


    Ian (Yanto)

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