The Velothon is Berlin’s equivalent of RideLondon: a closed-roads sportive which attracts thousands of riders and takes in some of city’s most iconic sights, with the mass participation event followed by a UCI 1.1 professional race.
And, like many sportives or gran fondos on the Continent, it’s effectively ridden at race pace – at least by those riders who start at the head of the field.
And that’s where I take up position on a cold, wet Sunday morning in mid-May having been handed a start spot in the VIP pen – the first wave of riders to set off on the 120km course (a 60km option is also available) – with six-time Tour de France green jersey winner Erik Zabel, brand ambassador to Canyon, who like me is in town for the launch of the German firm’s new ‘comfort’ bike, the Endurace.
The flag drops and our group of around 20 riders, already soaked through from the heavy rain which shows little sign of slowing either on the horizon or in the forecast, rolls out ahead of the main field. The course is pan-flat, with less than 1,000 feet of climbing in 72 miles, but that only means the pace is electric from the off and within minutes the first wave of riders is approaching my back wheel. The peloton is huge, more than 100 riders strong, and I jump into the group, sucked along in a whirlwind of road spray kicked up from the standing water on the road out of Berlin.
I hear the crash of carbon of concrete in what would prove to be the first of many thanks to a combination of heavy rain, slick roads and hundreds of riders in close quarters, but keep my eyes fixed forward, slowly moving back up the group, riding into hub-high puddles which appear before my front wheel as quickly as they disappears.
The course only contains two ‘climbs’, after six and 12 miles respectively, but what they lack in length or gradient – both are little more than a drag – they make up in intensity, with no let-up in the pace and that sees the group thin out significantly and I’m among the riders to go out of the back door.
By now, however, riders are approaching from the second wave of starters and, after a hard chase which puts me into the red, I jump on to the back of a group which I would be part of until the finish some 60 miles later. It’s a relatively small group at this stage but grows as we ride in a pace line, picking up stragglers cast aside further up the road as we ride through the suburbs of Berlin.
Having spent two hours on the Canyon Endurace during its initial launch on the outskirts of the city, the Velothon provides a second opportunity to get to know the latest addition to the Koblenz-based brand’s range, and its stiff and responsive chassis willingly responds to accelerations when sprinting out of a corners, while the frame combines well with the fast and reassuring 25mm Continental GP4000S tyres and superb leaf-spring VCLS 2.0 seatpost to smooth out imperfections in the road, and the confidence-inspiring handling ensures its at home in a nervy bunch.
The rain continues to fall and life in the peloton is one masked by the spray from the rider’s wheel in front. Time at the front of the group bring respite but exposure to the wind only amplifies the effort required and I move back into the shelter of a group which, a brief glance back reveals, has now grown significantly.
The route heads south through the pan-flat rural outskirts of Berlin before turning north to return to the centre via the B101n, one of the main trunk roads into the city and the equivalent of riding on the M1 into London, with my group, which has now joined forces with another, now comfortably more than 100 riders strong and spread across the three lanes of the motorway, closed to traffic and handed over to cyclists for the day. The peloton is now so big that it offers an opportunity to shelter in the bunch and take on food before the final third of the ride.
The miles tick by at a rate of knots and the fields which previously lined the road are replaced by suburban Berlin and we re-enter the city to take in a tour of its most famous sights, riding on the runway of the Tempelhof Airport, which played a key role in World War II, and passing the East Side Gallery and Alexanderplatz. With the relative calm of the ‘motorway’ behind us, the route picks a path through the city, and, just as had been the case at the start of the ride, each bend in the road is accompanied by a fierce sprint out the corner, like a criterium, and my heart rate continues to track in peaks and troughs – rising when bridging a gap or towards the front of the group, and falling when sheltered in the bunch – and that’s now taking its toll on tired legs.
And so, with less than three hours on the clock, my Garmin computer approaching 120km and an average speed of 25mph, I neck a final gel as the pace ramps up for a sprint finish on the Strauss des 17. Juni in front of the Brandenburg Gate, before a well-earned Weissbeer.
The Berlin Velothon may not be an iconic event but its stature in Germany is second-to-none. It’s a fine way to see one of Europe’s best cities by bike – providing the weather plays ball – and to tag a sportive on to a weekend break. And as exhilarating as it is to be swept up along in a peloton of hundreds of riders on closed roads, fight for position in the bunch, and sprint for the finish line, you don’t have to ride it eyeballs out. Just don’t start at the front.