Organisers of Sunday’s RideLondon-Surrey 100 sportive will be praying for better weather than the conditions which beset our preview ride: driving rain and gusting winds typical , if not of recent weeks, then British ‘summers’ of late.
But the forecast is looking up and, whatever the weather, a ride which takes in London’s landmarks, plus a testing circuit of the Surrey Hills, on closed roads and with more than 20,000 riders is a spectacular prospect.
Some 40 riders rolled out from Sigma Sport in south west London for our recce, split into two groups, led by Wouter Sybrandy and Peter Hawkins, both local pros who train on the course, and who will line-up for IG-Sigma Sport in the RideLondon-Surrey Classic, which takes place after the sportive.
The route is, on paper, fairly sedate for a major sportive. It doesn’t have the long Alpine ascents of the Etape du Tour, the distance of the Dragon Ride, or the leg breaking climbs of the Fred Whitton Challenge. Instead, the route’s three significant climbs are squeezed into a 30-mile section in the Surrey Hills.
But 100 miles remains a long way to ride a bike and, Hawkins warns, the profile may catch any underprepared or gung-ho riders off guard.
“I’m sure there will be many riders who have never ridden 100 miles before, and even for those that have, the fact that there will be so many people and that it’s on closed roads means it could get quite competitive,” Hawkins told RoadCyclingUK after our ride.
“It’s very easy to get excited on closed roads. Don’t wreck yourself at the start, pace yourself. It’s a lot easier to give more at the end when you have something left in the tank, rather than trying to recover after you’ve already done too much, too early.
“Just like when I’m racing, I don’t want to give too much at the start then not have anything left at the end – it’s just the same for a sportive rider.”
Our ride picked up the route in Hampton Wick, just over 20 miles on from Sunday’s start in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, and followed the wide and largely flat terrain out to Ripley which, on traffic-free roads, should provide a fast start to the sportive.
It is there that hostilities will begin with the climb of Newlands Corner, the first of three ascents in the Surrey Hills, and one whose profile – 1.1 miles at an average of 4.6 per cent – disguises its steep gradient, according to Hawkins.
“Newlands Corners is probably the easiest way to get over that ridge,” said Hawkins. ” But it’s still quite steep and there’s a good 500m that gets up to about 15 per cent. You will feel it.”
Owing to the bad weather, our ride skipped Leith Hill, instead fast-tracking to Box Hill, but the climb will be familiar to Surrey cyclists. Leith Hill is a staple of local club runs, races and, last year, the final stage of the Tour of Britain.
It’s by no means the steepest climb in the area, but one of the longest, at 1.3 miles at an average of 6.3 per cent, with long sections at a considerably more taxing gradient, and it will come with 55 miles in the legs, Box Hill to come and the final run-in back to the finish on The Mall.
“The middle stage around the Surrey Hills is pretty hard, even for guys like us they are tough climbs, so I’m sure there will be a lot of tired bodies on the way back in,” said Hawkins.
“The worst thing you can do on a climb like Leith Hill is to go too hard, too soon. It’s best to pace yourself on the bottom of the climb, then if you’ve got a bit left in the tank halfway up then you can push on a bit.
“But it’s also important to not only pace yourself for the climb in front of you, but for the rest of the climbs and the rest of the route.”
Sybrandy, who also rode the Olympic test event in August 2011, added: “Don’t overdo it on Leith Hill. It’s quite a long and steep climb so make sure you’ve got the right gears for it.
“Be careful on the descent, particularly if it’s wet. It’s quite narrow and doesn’t have the best road surface in the world.
“Leith Hill will be the hardest part of the ride. In fact, that middle part of the ride will be quite tough. Make sure you keep eating, pace yourself and don’t overcook it in the first hour of the sportive by trying to race. The temptation, particularly on closed roads, will be to go too hard at the start.”
The pro race will take in three ascents of Leith Hill – enough to soften the legs but unlikely to eject the likes of race favourite Peter Sagan (Cannondale Pro Cycling) and Team Sky’s Ben Swift, according to Hawkins – but the sportive will descend off the initial climb and follow the A25 into Dorking before dropping down to the foot of Box Hill.
Box Hill is a climb which needs no introduction. A long-time favourite for south-east cyclists thanks to its steady gradient and Alpine-like hairpins, it was on the climb that the race-winning attack was launched during last summer’s Olympic road race.
It’s a fast ascent, conducted at an average gradient of five per cent for 1.5 miles on an impeccably smooth road surface, re-laid for the Olympic Games and still bearing the graffiti sprayed on the road as motivation for Mark Cavendish, Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Ian Stannard and David Millar.
The National Trust cafe effectively marks the top of the main climb, but the road drags on for another couple of miles before the fast descent towards Leatherhead, which in itself is punctuated with a short, steep ramp.
From there the route heads through Leatherhead town centre and back into the capital via a series of rolling trunk roads, which will either propel Sunday’s riders to a fast time, or provide the final nail in the coffin for tired legs.
The roads were lined during our ride with large yellow signs warning drivers that they will not only be closed on Sunday, but that vehicles will be towed away if parked.
We left the route after 50 miles of riding, returning to the warm and dry of Sigma Sport, but it gave a sense of scale to the event, which will essentially shut down 100 miles of London’s roads, including larges swathes of the centre of the city, not only for a race, but a sportive. Good, isn’t it?
“The one downside of riding in Surrey is the traffic and you won’t have that,” said Sybrandy.
“It will be very quick coming back, particularly as there’s often a tailwind and the roads are fast. Riding back to London, past the landmarks to the finish on The Mall, will be spectacular.”