Signing up for your first 100-mile cycle ride is pretty exciting stuff – especially when it is Ride London. Put that together with the driest start to a summer since modern records began in 1961, you think you are onto a winner. What could be more fun than cycling through London in glorious sunshine, onlookers waving you on, heading your way towards to Leith and Box Hill, of 2012 Olympic fame and finishing to the roar of the crowd on The Mall? Sometimes reality is a little different.
When your first 100-mile cycle event doesn’t quite go to plan
The adventure began when Fiona and I set off on the train with our beloved bianchi bikes from Emsworth station up to London. All was well, if a little crowded on the train, we arrived at our hotel, dropped off our bags and bikes, and headed to the ExCel to register. The fact that the hotel had no running water and electricity was of little consequence to us at lunchtime. Registering was all very straight forward, no queues. The cycling show at the ExCel is a great event and we saw Geraint Thomas cement his victory of the Tour de France, during the time trial, on the big screen. All boding well for our own cycling milestone the next day.
Back at the hotel still no running water, so we spent 1.5 hours trying to secure a room in another hotel and moving our gear. Not a big deal, but something we could have done without when, as we all like to think, we should be tapering before a big event!
A large bowl of pasta later, we settled down, alarm set for the early hours, wondering would we need our waterproofs during this great British heat wave.
The trip to the start was easy, we cycled along the Cycle Superhighway to the Olympic Park. The start is incredibly well organised, everyone is given a colour, a wave letter and a time to get to the correct loading area. There is also a bag drop facility, numbered and easy to find. As we nervously waited for our due start time (timed to precision by the organisers) we were treated to various music and the warm up guy announced after 75 dry days in London, this would be first wet one; groans all round. They did their best to cheer us all up, but the heavens opened as we rolled out to ‘Sweet Caroline’!
Here we go
We were off, and it was raining from the start! The route sets off from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, past the Tower of London, the head office of Mercer (where I work) to the first drink station 11 miles in, at Pall Mall. We decided to stop as we’d only had time for a quick breakfast and had a very nice croissant. We were however soaked to the bone already. No matter what waterproof clothing promises, it is VERY hard to stay dry in persistent rain, on a bike. Spirits were still high however and we were keen to get on.
Despite the weather it was lovely seeing all the sights of London, on closed roads, although it did feel a little weird cycling through red traffic lights. The route winds it’s way out of London, through Richmond Park, which is huge (and brown, from all the hot weather) and onto the next hub at Hampton Court Green. We were keen to keep our energy levels up so stopped again to stock up. Normally, stops are great affairs on sportives, but we needed to keep moving to stay warm – yes, you heard it, we were actually cold – for the first time in months.
Cycling out of London we went through some lovely little villages and were lifted by the well wishers who had come out to cheer us on – I thank every single one of you – you were amazing and definitely lifted our spirits. I had a low point between 30 and 40 miles. The weather showed no chance of improving, we still had 60 miles to go, there were people fixing punctures everywhere and we hadn’t even hit a hill of any consequence yet. We ploughed on up Newlands Hill and stopped at the hub at Newlands Corner (48 miles). I am sure this is a truly wonderful place on a sunny day, but I think it will go down as the worst stop I have experienced on a sportive. Not because of the wonderful people, great refreshments or facilities, but the rain was almost horizontal as it whipped up over the hills and hit us in the face. Some people were desperately trying to warm up with foil blankets, others protecting themselves with bin liners and some left wondering why on earth they had thought they could do this ride in a short sleeved shirt and shorts. It was so bad, I didn’t even attempt to get my camera out for cycletography. We were cold, soaked and desperate to get to the half way point.
Difficult second half
From the stop, the long downhill into a strong headwind didn’t do much to warm us up. We were looking forward to hitting Leith Hill. As we approached what we thought was the hill there were lots of walkers but we managed to forge a single line of cyclists on the right. I really don’t think the walkers were doing it out of choice, the volume of cyclist just made it very hard to stay on the bike. We got to the top and were then joined by cyclists from the right, only to find out we had been diverted and hadn’t done Leith Hill after all. It is at this point that I must offer my sincere condolences to the family of Nigel Buchan-Swanson, who suffered a cardiac arrest on the Leith Hill section and very sadly died. As a community of cyclists we all so grateful to be able to enjoy the sport we love and indeed the family have said he ‘died doing something he loved’.
We didn’t know the full details of the accident at the time, but everyone knew how precarious the roads were and we were all taking it very carefully. The roads were greasy, wet and busy, add to that tired cyclist, driving rain and long descents – we all needed to keep our wits about us.
The crowds were great in the towns. Thank you again, you wonderful people…..
Still, we had passed the 60 mile mark and were looking forward to prospect of Box Hill. We were gutted when we were diverted past it and told it was closed. The good thing was we now had a really nice tail wind, it was reasonably flat and we were headed back into London. The crowds were great in the towns. Thank you again, you wonderful people – you don’t know how much you lifted our spirits. After a little kick of a hill in Wimbledon, we were back into London. I finally took my waterproof off with about 5 miles to go, to show off my #TeamRedCross top. We cycled up The Mall to finish about 4pm, about 6 hrs 15 mins cycling time.
What an experience
Did I enjoy it? Of course I did – I was on a bike all day, cycling on closed roads, with 27,000 other cyclists in the UK’s biggest amateur cycling event. I was disappointed not have done Leith and Box Hill, and, with the diversions, our mileage was only 90 miles. We console ourselves that we cycled over 10 miles getting to the event in the morning and back to our hotel afterwards, so did do 100 miles in a day, just not the full Ride London 100 miles. The conditions meant there weren’t the large crowds we had expected and I hardly took any photos. But we definitely felt like badass cyclists, more resilient from the experience and thankful for completing it with no accidents or punctures. This message from the race director, Hugh Brasher, just about sums up the day. ‘Brutal’ was definitely a word I heard a lot on the ride and we certainly felt the 55mph gusting headwinds in Surrey!
The event is brilliantly organised and I guess I will have to do it again, if only to complete the two hills. Thank you to all the organisers, marshals and all involved in keeping us safe on the day. We will be back.