Well, what can I say about the biggest sportive ever held on UK soil, and the most enjoyable I’ve ever ridden?
Perhaps ‘epic’ best describes it, a phrase that applies equally in scale, satisfaction, and sheer enjoyment.
Massive credit is due to everyone involved in pulling off this event. It must have been a logistical migraine, but anyone who took part will join me I’m sure in offering a hearty thank-you.
I rode on behalf of Shelter, the charity fighting homelessness and poor housing. Fundraising was a new experience for me and I’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of family and friends alike.
I was determined to be organised, and called in more than a few favours from friends in the industry. Gels came courtesy of Torq (more of which later) and Chapeau! supplied the all-important chamois cream (I must have been concerned – I packed two). I live on the on the other side of London, so took the precaution of staying in a hotel close to the Queen Elizabeth Park to be ready for my early start. The overnight stay meant packing two more items: a disposable tooth brush and two headache pills, the latter to overcome the effects of a pillow seemingly made from straw.
And the biggest favour? Well, hats off to the gentlemen at Fondriest UK who very kindly allowed me to use the recently-tested Fondriest T2 Limited Edition. Having ridden the bike before, I knew what to expect, and was really looking forward to riding it over a longer distance. The perfect handling makes for a bike that begs to be ridden fast, but could my legs satisfy its demands?
I swapped out the wheels for a set of Novatec R5 hoops. We’ll have a full review soon, so I’ll limit my feedback here to their appearance, which generated more than their fair share of many comments and questions. The rider next to me at the start had a classic, steel-framed Fondriest, allowing us to show off the old and the new.
My day, or should I say night, started in Canary Wharf. As mentioned earlier, I live on the route, but didn’t fancy a 20-mile ride to the start in the morning, so stayed in a hotel close by, possibly the first built there. After a restless night on a bed seemingly made of concrete, I woke at 5.30am, took some Imodium, (my ‘little girl’s stomach’ is prone to energy gel issues), wolfed down three pots of rice pudding, prepped myself, and was out of the door by 6am.
The ride was three miles to the start, on roads still open to traffic, and I felt for the drivers slightly, as there were literally thousands of cyclists everywhere. Arriving at the Olympic Park in plenty of time for my 7.22am start, I was amazed by the sight of so many cyclists: too many to count, and visible as far as the eye could see. There was a real buzz of anticipation among riders of all abilities, and hearing them whisper about the climbs, how much food they should carry, and other practical considerations heightened my sense of anticipation. After an hour in the loading bay, my group (a thousand cyclists, at least) was ready to leave. We were off!
For the first two miles (held on an empty A-road, usually one of London’s busiest) before the start, riders were hustling for positions and eyeing up the competition. The start was in sight and as soon as it came, it was hell for leather! We went through abandoned tunnels, watching out for potholes (the poor guy to my left lost both bottles as he hit it) and then up into London’s business district. Every couple of hundred metres were volunteers, who throughout the day did an amazing job. The few spectators applauding at such an early hour made an unusual but very welcome sight. Other early birds included those on “the walk of shame” home from the night before, and perhaps confused by the sight of so many cyclists.
The route pushed south West through the city until it reached East Sheen, and at this point I heard the ear-shattering sound of carbon hitting the road behind me. I had to shout at the rider in front not to ‘rubber neck’ and cause another crash. We’ve all watched crashes in televised road races, but when you hear it so close, it’s enough to make your hair stand on end.
We rode onwards to Richmond Park, a familiar sight from my daily commute. The roads in the park were much narrower than those on which the ride had begun and highlighted just how many riders were taking part. The undulating terrain offered a great view of riders in the distance.
The park gave us our first climb, if that’s the right word to describe Sawyer’s Hill, and it was interesting to see how people would take it or get off and walk so early into the ride. Just after the hill, the road flattens out and because of the weight of traffic, I wanted to turn on the gas and make up some time. Cycling on a route you know well is a serious advantage, giving you the knowledge to know where you can really push it. Down on the drops, head down and flat out, I snatched a look behind to see a snake of perhaps 45 cyclists on my tail – great to see and quite daunting at the same time. By this point, I’d grown accustomed to riding through red lights, but it wasn’t until after 70 miles that I stopped looking right for cars on the approach to roundabouts.
As we entered Kingston at around 8.25am and riding the wrong way around the one-way system (another strange experience), I could see and hear the first of the charity supporters (GOSH being the nosiest by far) and also a real increase in public support. As we approached Hampton Court, almost exactly a year since Bradley Wiggins was crowned Olympic time trial champion there, we reached the first feed zone, or Hub. I carried on, having planned to stop at the top of Box Hill for water some 68 miles in. As the strong head wind took the ‘punch’ from the heat, I felt confident I could ration my on-board supplies.
We left the built up areas behind and headed into the Surrey countryside – my backyard, as far as training is concerned. I usually ride with friends, and drafting strangers at such speeds was an eye opener. I found myself riding in a group of six, where each easily matched the others’ speed and understood how each other rode, and so worked well, creating a camaraderie that left me wondering where a rider had gone if he dropped back, despite the fact we had started the route as strangers.
Passing another Hub station as we approached the 45-mile mark, I knew that the first real climb, Newlands Corner, was approaching. I was hesitant, not knowing the climbing standard of so many other riders. I had previously wolfed down a gel in preparation: Torq’s Rasberry Ripple, the kindest to my stomach (rhubarb and custard – a personal favourite – also packed).
As I approached the climb, the pace of the riders slowed dramatically, and looking ahead was an awesome sight. So many cyclists battled this hill, but surprisingly I breezed up it (I’m not a natural climber). Was this a sign for things to come, or was it because I was up to the eyeballs in energy gels? At the crest, I saw a cyclist in an old RoadCyclingUK jersey (circa 2008) and we shared a few words as I rode alongside him in our website’s latest getup.
We rolled up and down the country roads, from sun to shade, forcing the eyes to adjust. You have to really keep your wits about you when descending with so many riders around you, many of whom were new to this sort of riding.
After 55 miles, we hit Leith Hill, the steepest of the climbs and one that slowed the pace and made the sweat pour. There was some serious grimacing on many of the riders’ faces: deadly silent, apart from the huffing and puffing and crunching gears. The road here really narrowed, trying to hustle for position was difficult, and all I could do was spin and hope to make up the time.
With Leith Hill conquered, we sped on through small towns and villages, many with names I couldn’t make out, another unusual aspect of riding with strangers: it seemed funny after cycling with friends, where I’m always more aware of where I’m riding.
Dorking and Box Hill where the next items on the agenda, and huge credit is due to the locals, who having found themselves suddenly living in a cycling mecca, turned out almost in their entirety to shout their encouragement from the top of their lungs. Their support really spurred me on, and with a rush of adrenaline, I sprinted out of the saddle. Now I know how it feels to be a pro – sort of!
Approaching Box Hill with the dawning realisation that this was the last real climb of the day and home to another ‘Hub’, I could sense the growing optimism of the less experienced riders. Box Hill is so much nicer to ride since it’s been resurfaced. When I reached the top, I saw a sign indicating one mile to the Hub: good – my water supply had run empty. A quick leak and a water top up later (separate processes, I hasten to add!), I was back on the road, and encountering riders I’d overtaken earlier, I had to regain my place. After a few eye-watering descents, I knew that it was homeward bound and back into the bigger towns of Surrey. Esher arrived and disappeared in a flash, and I was soon heading back towards my neck of the woods.
We entered Kingston for the second time in the day, and by this time the crowds had swelled, prompting a return to the happy experience of feeling like a pro cyclist. The charities at this point had grown in numbers and seemed to be holding a competition to decide who was loudest.
From here, we rode into Wimbledon, and on to a slight hill: nothing much, but probably the worst of the day, as my legs suddenly began to feel heavy. A few gels later, I was OK, and it was interesting later to see the two front runners in the RideLondon-Surrey Classic race lose time on this slight blip of a hill too.
Next was Putney, and descending the steepest hill of any I know in a built up area. The streets were lined with spectators. Just cross the bridge, I told myself, and it isn’t that far. From here on, I was back on the route of my daily commute. I do hope that Strava will show some PB’s!
With only the Embankment to go, I knew the headwind would be bad, and riders around me started to flag, becoming more strung out than at any point in the previous 20 miles. Approaching Westminster, I could see and hear the crowd, and from somewhere I found the energy to push harder. Passing the Houses of Parliament, the crowds seemed 30 deep. I rode past Big Ben alone, and their cheers seemed for me only. Cue more pro cyclist delusions!
From here, it was a tight left hand turn under Admiralty Arch and on to The Mall, with the finish in sight. I tapped a last reserve of energy and powered across the line.
I wasn’t certain of the time I’d post, because of the weight of cycling ‘traffic’. Would it be five hours or six? I rolled over the finish line with a time of 4.45, which I was more than happy with, having overcome the obstacles of a headwind and 19,999 riders.
I would strongly recommend taking part in the RideLondon-Surrey 100 to anyone. To ride on closed roads, past so many iconic landmarks and with so many other riders, being cheered by so many members of the public will make it one of your best day’s riding.
And for me? The daily commute won’t ever seem the same and sharing the Embankment again with traffic will be no fun. Finally, a big thanks to those who sponsored me, to Fondriest UK, to Torq, and to Shelter, and to the wife’s taxi service. Oh, and to Imodium.