We have a lot to thank the summer of 2012 for. During a balmy and barmy two-month spell, Britain’s first ever Tour de France winner was crowned, while just days later, the same man won a gold medal in the men’s road time trial at his home city’s Olympics.
Although things didn’t quite go to plan for (the now Sir) Bradley Wiggins’ Team GB team-mate Mark Cavendish in the Games’ road race, it is as a result of this event that, six years later, I found myself in east London at 6:00am on a Sunday morning in July with 20,000 other cyclists.
I was there, of course, to compete in the Prudential RideLondon-Surrey 100 – a century ride that would see me whizz from the Lee Valley VeloPark down to the Surrey hills, over the climbs of Newlands Corner, Leith Hill and Box Hill, before heading back for a grandstand finish on The Mall.
The sportive is the appetiser before the pros of the WorldTour peloton take on the RideLondon-Surrey Classic along a very similar (but longer) route for the afternoon’s main event, while the weekend is a festival of cycling which also sees the women's Classique race take place and plenty more besides. But before the likes of Mark Cavendish and eventual Classic winner Pascal Ackermann took to the RideLondon course, it was my turn to test myself over a century for the first time.
I've completed plenty of big rides before, including the Gran Fondo Alé La Merckx earlier this year, but having never complete a three-figure ride before, I was unsure what to expect. Here are five things I learnt from riding my first 100-mile sportive - and some tips for riders looking to complete a century of their own.
1. Remember, it’s not a race
This may sound obvious, but with a three-figure course ahead of me, I thought it was best not to set off at a rate of knotts – even if the start was relatively flat.
Fortunately, unlike the Italian gran fondo I rode back in June, the other riders were of a similar mindset, picking the pace up gradually rather than racing to hit the apex of the first corner that falls within the opening mile.
It may have just been in my mind, but conserving energy earlier came in handy later in the ride when emptying the tank in the last 10 miles, sticking with a fast group on the run-in to the finish on The Mall. When you're planning to ride 100 miles, pacing can make the difference between finishing strongly and grovelling over the line.
2. Be prepared for all conditions
To say that this year’s RideLondon was wet would be an understatement. Despite a sustained spell of record-breaking hot weather, the heavens decided to open for the 2018 edition, taking the challenge up a notch.
Although there have been more treacherous editions (2014 springs to mind, when the course was shortened to 86 mile because of the weather), the wind and rain was a constant feature of the ride, making concentration essential for the duration of the course.
Fortunately, my last minute decision to pack a rain jacket ‘just in case’ paid off – I think I’d still be drying out now if it wasn’t for that. Although I did still get soaked through, that extra layer helped keep the very worst at bay. If you're preparing for a century of your own, make sure you have that spare layer just in case.
The weather also brought with it some additional road furniture, and while I was very fortunate to avoid getting a puncture (until about two minutes from my house on the ride home), it’s best to pack some spare tubes, a pump and to have a quick brush up on how to change an inner tube before setting off - otherwise, you might be waiting a long time for the broom wagon...
3. Don’t believe the hype about Box Hill
Ask someone to name a cycling climb in Surrey and most will say Box Hill. RideLondon's headline climb has developed something of a reputation, despite it's pretty insignificant stature.
The zig-zagging ascent that takes you out of Dorking and up into National Trust territory is famous because it featured a leg-numbing nine (yes, nine) times during the 2012 Olympics men’s road race. On that day, the climb provided the battleground for a war of attrition, with the final breakaway getting clear on the ascent and disappearing up the road, along with Mark Cavendish's medal hopes.
RideLondon entries now open for 2019
The public ballot has now opened for the 2019 Prudential RideLondon-Surrey 100. For more information and to put your name in the hat, visit the RideLondon website
But with an average gradient of five per cent and brief peaks of 12 on the 2.3km climb, it’s really over before it really starts in the RideLondon sportive. Although it does come more than 60 miles into the century, there is a tougher nut to crack about 10 miles before.
The hardest ascent award easily deserves to go Leith Hill. Yes, it’s shorter (two kilometers), but at six per cent and with steepest sections of 13, on paper it is tougher. On the bike it also feels much more of a challenge. The road is slightly narrower, and as it is the first real test of the course, there’s a tendency for bottlenecks to appear as people trudge their way up the climb on foot on the left-hand side of the road, while others jostle for position on the remaining - and undoubtedly steep - asphalt.
4. Cherish the car-free roads
RideLondon-Surrey is one of a handful of sportives in the whole of the UK that has entirely closed roads. This is a mammoth task for the organisers to arrange and police – especially in central London – and the opportunity to ride through the city and take in the sights along the Embankment without having to worry about any motorised traffic is definitely a novelty.
For me, it also came in handy when the course reached the outskirts too, especially considering the aforementioned conditions. Rather than having to descend on the wheel of the cyclist in front of me with fingers and toes crossed, I was able to use the full width of the road, choosing the line I wanted and keeping out of harm’s way.
On the ride home, I soon realised how nice it was to have spent the morning spinning around the car-free roads of London and Surrey.
5. Be prepared to ride more than 100 miles
If you’re able to secure accommodation the night before the start in Stratford’s former Olympic village and can retire to one of the hotels in the Green Park area post-ride, then this doesn’t apply to you.
For those who haven’t recently robbed a bank, you can expect to clock up more than the advertised century on the day – even if it’s just heading to get the free shuttle service back to the start.
Living in London myself, I used the pre-ride 13.5km spin out to the start line to get me limbered up, while the 16.5km home was the longest warm-down I’ve ever done. It seemed to help the following day though, with the aches and pains that usually accompany a long-distance event kept to a minimum – hey, if it’s good enough for the pros, then it must help a little bit. All told, it meant I spent nearly 120 miles in the saddle, but I've put my Strava ride for the 100-mile sportive below.
The ride itself is easily one of the best I've taken part in, and given the smiles on the faces of most of the participants (even in the torrential rain), it seems that others felt that way too.