London. City of 8 million, all of who seem to be on the same Tube carriage as you or walking in the opposite direction on Oxford Street. Crowded. Choked. Clogged. Roads heaving with impatient drivers eager to shave seconds off their journey. London. City of the cycling revolution, the blood of the revolt ignored, each day anew fresh skirmishes, daily clashes, one and all fighting for respect, for safety, for sanity.
RideLondon. Closed roads. Space, silence, support. The city transformed for a day when the bike is the king of the roads, a day you wish would never end. Unless that is, the remnants of a hurricane are heading your way. This is the tale of when my love affair with RideLondon turned sour.
Training for RideLondon 100
Whisper it quietly, this was actually my second RideLondon. As such I was no stranger to the demands of the 100 mile course. Cycling is often reduced to numbers so let’s begin with some random digits. 96, 160, 106, 112, 70. This was my mileage each weekend prior to the event. Big numbers that impress nobody. Why? I was cycling too much.
The week before the big day I eked out a 70 mile ride. Exhausted, I pretty much crawled home with the words of my own blogs on over training and learning when to rest bashing me over the head. My numbers should have been smaller and more structured, such as 60, 70, 80, 90, 80. Train for what you will ride, no more, no less.
What to do then but ban myself from cycling? During the next seven days the only things I rode were escalators and my luck when trying to get a seat on the morning commute. Add to that lots of sitting around with my legs up high, relaxing baths, vitamin supplements and healthy food, anything to aid my recovery. If you’d have told me to rub my legs in the urine of baby tarantulas before setting them alight with paraffin I would have, so desperate were my internet searches for tangential evidence of miraculous recovery cures.
Unable to cycle, I was left to fret about the condition of my legs, my hypochondriac levels surpassing those of Woody Allen trapped in a nursery lift surrounded by snotty spotty infants.
Excitement too began to build. And nerves. Three numbers weighed heavy around my neck. 443. This was my time in the inaugural RideLondon, four hours and 43 minutes, equating to a whopping 21 mph average speed for 100 miles. Whoop!
Even I was impressed, especially considering I’d broken my elbow four weeks before the big event. Praise be the fast men I rode with that day, not to mention the healthy tailwind on the return leg. Could such a time be conquered? When I first entered RideLondon I cared not for my time but this didn’t last long once training begun. With tired legs and meteorologists talking of hurricane weather, my ambition shrivelled to blind hope.
Bertha ruins the big day
RideLondon is a sportive. I hate sportives. Paying to ride cluttered roads I can ride for free without worrying about the rash moves of weekend warriors is not for me. Yet RideLondon is different. It is in my home city for one. A place where closed roads really do make a difference. Closed roads on country lanes, pah, ride early enough and the roads are all yours anyway.
Riding according to a schedule is also not my thing. If it rains it’s much harder to roll over in bed if you’ve signed up to an event. My gate opening time for RideLondon was a ridiculous 5.10 am. Now, I like early morning rides as much as the next cyclist but this meant waking up at 4 am aka the middle of the night.
The day before the big event I was checking the weather forecast more than your average sailor. Despite all of the rule 5 shouts and calls to HTFU, should common-sense prevail, you will admit cycling in the rain is not fun. Despite my prayers, I knew I would be riding in biblical rain. Quite the difference to the sunshine and pleasant tailwind of 2013.
Four am. I awoke in the dark and listened but could hear no rain. Maybe my luck would be in! Fat chance. The very minute I leave my house the heavens show me who will be boss for the day. Heavy rain. Eyes barely open, I arrived at the Olympic Park somewhat damp, the skies still black, cereal still settling in my stomach. The park was peppered with cyclists, mostly male of a certain creed and age. The nervous anticipation was palpable, somewhat akin to a military camp preparing for war. Nervous footmen queued for toilets or were busy fuelling themselves for the battle of attrition ahead, expensive shiny equipment lying everywhere.
The announcement of a shortened route was received with a mixture of disappointment and relief. The course had officially been shortened to 86 miles, skipping both Leith Hill and Box Hill. Shame, but totally understandable given the weather that would later punish us.
A surreal serenity
No starting gun sounded, instead we set off to a clunk-click salute of cleats clipping into pedals. Off we go! First up an empty dual carriageway, a tempting invitation for overexcited cyclists to set off at the pace of Mark Cavendish on the Champs-Élysées. Adrenalin pumping, I followed, my heartrate audible so hard was my muscle working. A course highlight arrived early, riding silently through the Limehouse Tunnel, the dim light making you feel as if you have entered another world devoid of noise, of air.
The peloton rode on, the closed roads theirs. Yet a strange thing happens. Everybody habitually clings to the left of the road, pre-conditioned, afraid perhaps to truly believe that finally, we do own the roads! I took a sneaky moment to enjoy cycling the wrong way down the road before slipping back onto the wheel of stronger men than I.
Central London is but a blur. You glide down the north embankment of the Thames and past Parliament (hello Winston!), the roads and streets empty, only the sound of rubber licking the tarmac and the occasional heavy panting from those overdoing things at mile 5 of 100. You are an extra in the film 28 days later, surrounded by a Lycra clad zombie army silently marching on in search of pain rather than brain.
Knightsbridge soon passes, the shoppers still tucked up in bed dreaming of Fabergé eggs. Central London behind us, we race into my favourite training ground, Richmond Park, before being spat out and beyond into Surrey, an almost silent peloton, still so quiet, awestruck, a library on wheels.
I cling to wheels as much as the peloton clings to the left of the road. A quick start means I am struggling. The rain begins and I’m soaked within minutes. I find myself alone, no wheels to follow just as the wind begins to pick up. Pain ensues.
Oh heck, here cometh the hills
The first 50 miles were over before we realised it and so we turned back towards the big smoke, relieved to escape the wind. Not long now, you think, almost sure you can hear the roars of the crowds on The Mall. That’s when the road goes up. And up and up. Newlands Corner. Bish.
Leith Hill. Bash. Box Hill. Bosh.
My legs begin thanking the organisers for shortening the course as I struggle up Leith Hill. I’m cooked. The peloton frays at the edges as the road goes up and is soon reduced to a thin line, a needle piercing the pack either side of them, loose cyclists weaving and heaving in their wake. The cyclists slow, but not the rain.
I love climbs. There is a certain pleasure in dropping other cyclists on the incline. Sometimes I wonder if all sportive riders, even a large number of club riders, are from East Anglia and are encountering these strange lumps in the road as if for the first time. That said, I was panting harder than a dog in a hot car by the time I conquered the summit.
Hill done, the road is now downhill and you edge around the corners on the wet roads, the racing line welcome on the closed roads, wary now only of the kamikaze descenders shooting by either side of you, so close you’re sure they’re aiming for you. Never will you take fright on fairground dodgems again.
Back on the flat, handlebar grip loosening, legs tightening, just 20 miles remain. Almost done you think, you hope, the pace picking up as you cling on to your average speed, your heart rate rising as you chase groups slightly quicker than you, hoping to be dragged to the line. The rain, not content with soaking you, decides to unleash torrents onto the roads which quickly turn into canals rendering our spirit and brakes useless.
The small clusters of people lining the route become swarms become crowds become a blur. Yes, they are cheering for you, you a cyclist, people are openly cheering you, in London nonetheless! Incredible support considering the weather.
The grand arrivée
After flying down the embankment parallel to Chelsea and Fulham, the sight of Westminster Abbey almost comes as a surprise. ‘What, back in London, already?’ you wonder, exhausted, legs cramping but somehow still spinning. You ride besides the Thames but the roads are so wet you might as well be in it. Big Ben, Whitehall, time to slow down and take it all in before the big left turn at Trafalgar Square (hello Nelson!), beneath Admiralty Arch you go, awestruck, you’re on The Mall and flying down the home straight before you know it, oh my flipping god, I’m cycling down The Mall and people are cheering me on! In this bloody weather!
Turning onto the Mall is what it must be like for Tour de France riders turning onto the Champs-Élysées on the final day of the Tour. Well, it’s the closest us amateurs will get. Even your heavy legs and the heavy rain cannot suppress your smile. Pride swells within, the roar of the crowd encouraging you to sprint to the line. You duly oblige.
Finished, 86 hard miles done, you cannot but help raise your arms as if yes, I have just won the Tour de France. You are a hero, bedraggled and cramping and dripping wet, tired fingers attempting to stop the Garmin to check your final time. Head bowed, a medal is soon hanging around your neck and a flash of photography welcomes the star of the day.
You beam and turn behind you to face Buckingham Palace, deliriously waving at the imaginary royals you’re quite sure are chanting your name from their balcony. Medal admired, you root through your goodie bag for the real rewards, recovery drinks and food which you soon devour, the remaining tat soon binned.
Thank you RideLondon, it wasn’t quite the pleasure of 2013, in fact it was a war of attrition rather than a grand day out. Thank you volunteers, thank you to the crowds for braving the weather, thank you to the chiselled calves that helped me to the line, thank you too to the rain, which stopped the minute I got home. Ha, good one!
And thank you too tired legs. You may not have completed 100 miles but you did manage an impressive 21.66 mph average speed. Would I have beaten last year’s time? Hard to say, the extra mileage wouldn’t have been a problem but I was noticeably slower on the hills this year. Plus, there was that damn Bertha making things pretty much incomparable. Still, 21.66 mph average speed for 86 miles. I’ll take that. Whoop whoop… Zzzz.
Tips for cycling RideLondon
- Don’t forget your water bottles. One gent I met at the start had. Lay your kit out the night before – you’ll be up in the middle of the night to make the start line
- Remember the road closures. They apply to you too when making your way to the Olympic Park
- Empty your bladder before you depart. The queues for the chemical toilets are pretty full on. Imagine a music festival queue and then consider all those ahead of you are wearing bib shorts.
- Training. Take it easy, be sensible. The more training you do, the more you will enjoy the event, unless of course you over do it. Can you ride 100 miles? Yes, anybody can.
- Try some hills before the big day. Don’t indulge me in my hobby of dropping cyclists on hills. Climb a few, you might even grow to love them!
- Water bottles part ii. Make sure they fit your water bottle cage. The number of bottles I saw lying in the road was quite something. Unless of course these folk thought they could do the pro thing and ditch their bottles!
- You will get cold waiting at the start line. Tricky one this. Take clothing you don’t need for the ride or freeze for a little bit? As a marathon runner I used to wear a bin bag at the start. Sexy.
- Be patient with your re-fuelling strategy. The first stop is packed and chaotic. So too those at the top of hills. Wait for the next stop, they’re not too far apart.
- Food strategy. You should be able to carry enough calories with you for 100 miles, which of course you have practised with in training. Me? Three bananas, two energy gels and the obligatory pack of Soreen. Everyone is different though, so experiment. And don’t forget to carb load the day before and force feed yourself a good breakfast on the morning.
- Group riding. Practise or read up about it. It’s not difficult but it is dangerous if you ignore the rules of the road. The same goes for club riders showing off, undertaking and coming by far too close when there’s plenty of room on the road.
- Don’t leave your bike unattended. You’re not safe just because you’re at a sportive. Professional thieves specifically target these events.
- Learn how to ride in the rain. And take your rain jacket should the skies look grey.
- Enjoy it. Make the most of the closed roads. It is quite the spectacle. Indulge yourself when you ride down The Mall.
Ride London Garmin route GPX
Here’s my RideLondon GPX on Strava for 2014, little use to you unless you plan on catching the tailend of a hurricane too! So here’s 2013 too and the full 100 miles. Don’t get attempting this ride with open roads as there were some pretty big dual carriageways on the route.
Praise (mostly) for the organisers
Finally a thank you to the organisers. In 2013 you blew me away with your organisation. You almost did it again in 2014 but for a few small peeves. Shortening the route was without doubt the right thing to do and my legs salute you. My only niggles were the the lack of signage throughout the Olympic Park and the starting pens which had very confusing labels.
The water stop I attended was in the middle of a large patch of grass, badly signed and pretty much impossible to get to easily. Not ideal, especially in the wet. Other than that, well done, processing 20,000 plus cyclists and making it all feel so easy was fantastic. Just don’t talk to me about those middle of the night start times!