The view from the Shimano neutral service car at the RideLondon-Surrey Classic

The red needle on the instrument panel of the Shimano neutral service car points to the number 100.

The sign glimpsed through the windscreen indicates a double digit downward gradient. The road closure allows us to aim at the apex and power through the sweeping right-hander ahead, into a narrow, twisting, tree-lined corridor that leads us down from the crest of another of the cruel hills of Surrey, but we are still unable to get anywhere near the eight riders ahead, whose bravery and talent cannot be countenanced from the television screen. You have to be here.

Koen Pauwels and Wesley Maiheu, driver and mechanic respectively of the vehicle from which I have been granted a front row view of the RideLondon-Surrey Classic, are Belgian. From this casual disclosure, it has been possible to deduce two qualities essential to the vital role they will perform in what is arguably the most important one-day professional road race this country has ever hosted. First, they are supremely relaxed. Secondly, they know bike racing.

Wesley Maiheu changes the front wheel of the stricken Ramon Sinkeldam (Argos-Shimano) at the top of Leith Hill

Few are likely to hold a higher opinion of their abilities than the 24-year-old Dutch rider, Ramon Sinkeldam. Much of the Argos-Shimano rider’s double triumph in London – Sinkeldam ends the day as victor both in the sprint and king of the mountains competitions – is owed to the blend of skill and calmness displayed by the Belgians a little past the crest of Leith Hill.

Pauwels utters a single word in Dutch, and before I understand what is happening, brings the car to an abrupt halt behind the stricken Sinkeldam. Maiheu appears in front of the rider, seemingly by osmosis: I haven’t registered his exit from the car, so quick is his response. Seconds later, with Maiheu back in the car, we are in pursuit of Sinkeldam, who has plunged into the darkened descent, sunlight shut out almost entirely by the canopy of trees, and embarked on a fearless pursuit of his confederates.

The mechanic appears in front of the rider, seemingly by osmosis: I haven’t registered his exit from the car, so quick is his response

Pauwels wrestles the car through a series of curves before seizing the opportunity of a rare moment of straight road to pull alongside Sinkeldam. The rider appears next to my open window, a figure from a parallel universe. He is descending at 70kph, but acknowledges the support of Pauwels and Maiheu with a smile and a few words of thanks. Maiheu leans from the window behind me to begin work on Sinkeldam’s rear brake, but this further assistance is politely declined. The whole conversation is conducted in the blasé tenor of one buying a pint of milk. The ultimate assurance comes a few kilometres later as we exit Dorking and Sinkeldam wins the intermediate sprint.

We watch the Dutchman and his confederates race on before they are caught, and a new attack – the two-man break of FDJ’s Yohann Offredo and Zico Waeytens (Topsport-Vlaanderen) – goes up the road. Race radio tells us to stay with the pair, and we accelerate after them, sticking closely behind the “president’s car” of the lead commissaire. A squadron of motorcycles also accompanies the new race leaders: police, television, riders from the National Escort Group, and a pairing whose pillion relays the ever-changing time gap on a white board.

Shimano neutral service driver, Koen Pauwels, installs the race radio antenna before the RideLondon-Surrey Classic

Offredo is doing all the work, and at one point turns to Waeytens to make his point with a force that removes any doubt surrounding his own opinion on the division of labour. Waeytens, however, has been in the break all day, and his suffering is evident in the subtle movements of his shoulders, miniscule but unmistakable from our position, just 200 metres behind.

The noise as they pull on to Putney Bridge, today host to Glastonbury-sized crowds, is deafening, but it is not enough for Offredo and Waeytens, or for us: with the bunch fast approaching, race radio orders us past the stricken pair, and our race, like theirs, is effectively over. We fly through Parliament Square and speed down the Embankment at a rate too fast for the Belgians to process my impromptu tourist guide (“and to our right, Battersea Power Station…”). The driving is necessarily fast and hard: 150 of the world’s best cyclists are less than a kilometre behind and riding at a speed similar to our own.

The entire population of villages like Ockham has decamped at the roadside, towns like Kingston have taken on the aspect of a ski resort hosting a summit finish at the Tour, and the crowds on Whitehall and The Mall are everything the organisers promised

As we power along Whitehall, the number of people at the roadside is astonishing. The crowds, merely impressive on our journey to the Surrey Hills, have swelled to enormous proportions on the run back in to town. The scale of support has to be seen to be believed, and my front row seat affords an extended and occasionally uncomfortable view, such is its proximity to the road and the speed of the race convoy.

The entire population seemingly of villages like Ockham has decamped at the roadside. Towns like Leatherhead, Esher, and Kingston have taken on the aspect of a ski resort hosting a summit finish at the Tour de France, with crowds six or seven deep pressing against the barriers that mark the narrow corridor of tarmac left to the riders and convoy. The crowds on Whitehall are everything the organisers promised. And then there’s The Mall.

The noise on Putney Bridge was deafening, but the crowds were powerless to prevent the capture of Yohann Offredo and Zico Waeytens

Few people experience a passage along the famed red tarmac with tens of thousands of people pressed against barriers either side, but our brief transit is more Formula One pit stop than royal procession. A steward appears to our right and opens the barriers. We park alongside the massed ranks of police and escort motorcyclists who have chaperoned the riders almost to the finish, and as I attempt to leave the passenger seat, I’m reminded that it will be for the first time in five hours. My brain tells me the race has lasted minutes; my legs report a different story.

It’s handshakes all round, and Maiheu tells me kindly that I have been a good guest. There is little doubt that he and Pauwels have been excellent hosts: the accommodation has been comfortable and the views outstanding. I’d go back like a shot.

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RoadCyclingUK travelled as guests of Madison and Shimano. Many thanks to both.

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