Some time ago – back in the days when I used to write in this blog semi-regularly – I wrote about a series of goals for the year of 2014. Needless to say I don’t think I managed to achieve any of them, but one of them continued to prey on my mind which was to participate in what has been described as the greatest mass participation cycling event in the world. Admittedly that was according to Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, who may be more than a little biased when it comes to legacy events such as this but you can’t argue with numbers and with over 20,000 participants (on the Sunday alone) the field dwarves the 8,000 or so that set off in the Etape du Tour each year.
Having consistently failed in my quest to get past the ballot process (around 100,000 people apply for those 20,000 places) and reluctant to push the sponsorship angle too often on a circle of friends savvy enough to appreciate that I would happily pay to ride 100 miles around Surrey I was once again going to have to add it to the list for ‘next year’. Fortunately for me, our fearless leader at SWR headquarters (who handily works for the headline sponsor, Prudential) had submitted a team entry which had been accepted. For the record I have no reason to believe that this wasn’t entirely legit but I certainly wasn’t going to ask too many questions when one of the coveted spots was offered in my direction.
Training for this momentous occasion was a sporadic affair if I’m honest and certainly could have benefited from a better foundation but I’m (mostly through necessity) gravitating to a High Intensity Training approach which basically means smashing it between lights on my daily commute. The route from Balham to The City isn’t renown for its undulations but there are a surprising number of uninterrupted stretches along the A3 where, cocooned in the Bus Lane and cruising along faster than the buses it is possible to give yourself a good workout with the change of clothes strapped to your back adding their own element of aero drag just to raise the resistance another notch. As I began to panic about the lack of overall miles in my legs in the run up to the event and with the humiliation of my performance in the FT May sportive still fresh in my mind (I abandoned at around the 60 mile mark) I managed a few 50/60 km type of rides around Richmond in the weeks running up to the weekend but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this might not really be sufficient! A glance at the proposed training schedule on the Prudential website confirmed my fears. But at least I could do the last week of tapering right – even managing a quick massage on the Friday to get the lactic acid out of my legs from the last minute spinning class/ Richmond laps that I’d subjected them to on the Monday/Tuesday. This new found, and clearly overdue, approach to preparation was extended to kit so that the night before I’d set out everything I needed, attached the appropriate numbers/ stickers and filled my jersey pockets with everything I thought I’d need to get round 100 miles which, for the record was 2 inner tubes, 2 gas bottles, tyre levers, 2 Cliff bars, 2 packs of shot blocks and a gel. Hydration was going to require a bit of rationing because the plan was to get round without stopping so I had 2, 750ml bidons with Nuun hydration tabs in one and High5 4:1 energy source in the other. As it turned out I only managed one of the Cliff bars and one pack of shot blocks as well as a couple of gels. The take away lesson, is that when it comes to taking on energy/ calories you really need variety. There’s only so much of one thing that your body can stand!
My starting info was Wave D which officially was 06:20 but meant that I needed to be in my starting pen no later than 05:45. In Stratford. That could only mean one thing – a very early start and although I considered the benefits of a taxi rather than a forced 12 mile ‘warm up’ ride I figured that road closures and so on would make the final approach to Stratford tricky and thus I’d probably be better off cycling. So as I climbed the long wooden hill to Bedfordshire on Saturday night I worked backwards to a distressing conclusion. If I wanted to get there at 5:45 and allowing for an hour to ride over at a sedate-ish pace, and considering I’d need time to take on some breakfast and STILL have time to stop at the all day McDonalds in Bow for a last minute calorie top up …. I needed to be up at 3:45 and out of the door no later than 4:30. And it was already 10:30! So I set my trusty iPhone alarm and turned in for the night in a state of nervous anticipation and slipped into a deep sleep dreaming of break-away glory and fresh legs.
That sleep was interrupted by one of the bloody dogs barking at who knows what in the garden! In my slumber I rolled over and picked up my phone just to see how long I still had before the alarm was due to go off. At this point it was a bit like the opening scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral.
“FUCK!!!” was definitely the first word out my mouth swiftly followed by “fuckityfuckityfuckfuck!” The time was 04:45 or in other words about 15 minutes after I should have set off.
I’d like to think that on some level my faithful hound was somehow in tune with my emotional state and just knew that I needed to be woken up but if I’m honest, he seems to think I need to be woken up in the middle of the night a little too often to believe that, so I can only put it down to sheer bloody luck that it wasn’t 8am. I’ve bonked often enough to know that running out of the door without any breakfast was only going to backfire on me a couple of hours down the road so I quickly formulated a plan B which was a two pronged approach. Prong number 1 was a roll of the dice that I could find a maxi cab on uber at a quarter to 5 on a Sunday morning to pick me up in the next 10 minutes. To my utter amazement I had about 4 or 5 to choose from! Swiftly stabbing the screen with my panicking fingers I moved on to prong number 2 which was how many calories I could eat before said cab arrived. Microwave porridge is a wonderful thing and in a couple of minutes I had a large piping hot bowl of the stuff. Too hot really. With time very much of the essence I set about scalding my mouth, throat and possibly my stomach too for that radioactive Ready Brek glow to send me on my way. Still – it’s not yet 5 o clock and at this time on a Sunday morning, in a cab, everything should be fine…. at least that’s what I thought!
We hadn’t even pulled out from the end of my road before I realised we might have a problem. Where the hell did all these cars come from?! It was like 8am on a Monday morning! We hadn’t even reached Clapham and already I was being overtaken by cyclists making their leisurely way towards Stratford! My stress levels only rose as after each successive set of traffic lights it became painfully obvious that it wasn’t just about to clear up ‘once we get past this bit’. Like a rabbit in the headlights I was too petrified to make the decision to get out and ride, clutching at the straw that I couldn’t possibly make up the time now and maybe, just maybe, the traffic might ease up. By the time we were turned away from London Bridge I was beginning to think that today was never going to happen and when we got the same reception at Tower Bridge with a suggestion of trying the Rotherhithe Tunnel I finally snapped. It was now 5:40 …. my starting pen was now about to close and I was still south of the river! Jumping on the bike I set off over Tower Bridge with adrenaline coursing through me although I was still able to take in the unique experience of crossing Tower Bridge all on my own as the sun rose over Canary Wharf and bounced off the glass edifices of the City on what was promising to be a beautiful summer’s day.
As I made my way through the City and back onto open roads where traffic was allowed I realised I had been right to get out of the cab. It was virtually grid locked! This ride was already taking on the dimensions of a commute from hell as I struggled to reach the Olympic Park as quickly as I could. With every junction that I passed, more and more cyclists poured onto the main arteries of the route so that from high above it must have resembled some sort of ant colony. On the plus side there was no need whatsoever to be worried about if I was on the right road for the starting line!
As I rolled into the Olympic Park the time was 6:05 and after dropping off my spare kit bag (the organisers give you a plastic bag with your start number on it so that you can leave spare layers, lights, surplus food etc behind and it is returned to you at the finish line) I set about following the arrows for Blue Wave D more in hope than expectation of being allowed to join my fellow SWR’s in the starting pen but, as I was to find out repeatedly throughout the rest of the event, there is an irrepressible good mood pervading across anyone helping to organise things at the Prudential event. So it was “no problem at all” to duck under the tape and join the rest of Blue Wave D who had presumably been standing quietly for the last half an hour. Spotting a gaggle of SWR jerseys in the middle of the throng I picked my way between the crush of carbon fibre and lycra to take my place alongside them. It was 10 past 6. 5 minutes before the off. Never in doubt!!
Waved on our way by our official starter (Matt Dawson of England and British Lions rugby acclaim) we were quickly into a brisk rhythm. I had been warned beforehand not to expect a gentle easing into the ride and that proved to be prescient advice. For the uninitiated, you can tell at a glance how hard a peloton of riders is having to work by how thick the bunch is. A compact and ‘fat’ peloton is generally in cruise mode whereas a long strung out peloton is indicative of a much higher pace with the effort required at the front considerably greater to drive the overall pace of the group along. As we headed out through The City our starting group of several hundred riders was being whittled down already and it was the SWR boys driving the pace on the front all the way out to Hyde Park Corner by which time we had picked up a few riders with earlier start times and the overall composition of our peloton started to establish itself.
It was around this point that the sheer scale of this event really started to sink in. Just from the size and calibre of the roads that were being closed off for us you know it’s something pretty special. Heading under Hyde Park Corner underpass flat out on the wrong side of the road is a pretty unique experience and I’m not sure how many times I’ll get the chance to head out over the Hammersmith Flyover on a bicycle without a car in sight. As you might expect for 6 something on a Sunday morning, the crowds weren’t exactly out in force but with a flat profile, fresh legs and a childlike enthusiasm the miles were ticking over very quickly indeed. In what seemed like no time at all we found ourselves in the all too familiar environs of Richmond Park and with it the 20 mile mark. Riding the old school way, without any sort of GPS or computer to feedback speed, cadence, distance, heart rate and a recipe for flapjack that it has just downloaded from the web I was relying on my SWR brethren for vital statistics. I was thus informed that we were currently averaging a scarcely credible 30 mph for the ride thus far. In continental terms that’s 48 kph average and to put that in some sort of context, I consider a training ride to have been ‘brisk’ if I can average 30 kph! Two factors were obviously contributing to this. Firstly, the lack of start/stop at junctions, traffic lights etc. Riding through the city it actually takes a little while to re-calibrate your brain not to react to the changing of traffic lights up ahead – something that has to be unlearned rather quickly as soon as you finish and start to make your way home! The second factor was the ‘peloton’ effect. The ability to shelter from the wind in a large group and get sucked along for less effort is well reported but club rides are typically in groups of no more than 10 or so riders and then never more than 2 abreast. When part of a larger beast of 100 or so riders spread out across the entire road the effect is so much more pronounced and is tremendously exhilarating which in turn only seems to encourage everyone to work that bit harder so that the average pace remains consistently high. But the cost of this free ride is mental fatigue. Riding in such close proximity to a large number of riders and with things like traffic islands and pot holes hiding unseen from view is mentally taxing with a constant need to both observe and pass on a whole range of hand signals to those riding around you so that the school of fish that is the peloton can flow smoothly along the route. And of course it can all go wrong – a swerve here, an unexpected dab of the brakes there can cause things to go very wrong very quickly at 30 mph when you’re riding 6 inches from the wheel in front and with riders either side of you. We passed a number of ambulances in those first 30 miles or so tending to stricken riders although I’m pleased to say that our own progress was untroubled but I was beginning to see why caffeine pills are so popular with pro riders – you can’t afford to switch off for a second!
As we headed towards the North Downs and the half way mark the terrain started to become more ‘rolling’ and as route headed up to the stunning view atop Newlands so the group started to break up as the climbers and the non-climbers fell into different rhythms and others peeled off for drinks at the hub station at the top. So the riding was now in much more fragmented groups and heading towards Leith Hill even the SWR riders found themselves temporarily separated after a call of nature and the peloton that had only a few miles ago been at least 50 strong was now down to single figures. The pace was still reasonable (so far as I could tell without any numbers to actually back that up!) but the effort required to keep it there was starting to creep higher. And talking of effort, we’re now skirting the edges of Forest Green and suddenly turning a corner and lifting our heads as our eyes follow the road skywards. We’ve arrived at Leith Hill.
The organisers of Ride London have, I think, tried to make the challenge of riding 100 miles as inclusive as possible. To that end the overall route is probably best described as flat-ish with some famous lumps. Box Hill is probably the most renowned of those lumps but Leith Hill is the steepest. Fortunately none of those lumps are excessive in length although, even though I know that, I have to remind myself that there’s no coffee of cake stop waiting for me at the summit and so a more controlled effort was called for. Sadly, having left my phone behind in my haste to get out of the door earlier that day, I don’t have any Strava data to compare but looking at Rick Gradidge’s data who was riding beside me, I appear to have ridden up Leith Hill 45 seconds faster than my previous best effort so I was either in the form of my life or (and I suspect this is the real reason) I simply got over-excited about the whole thing after I saw a King of the Mountain start sign which was actually for the pro riders due to ride past later in the day!
Of course the best bit of going up is that you get to go down again and in this case what followed was a lovely fast ride down the other side on to the A25 and into Dorking before heading to the base of Box Hill and the last of the famous lumps. The SWR team were still 80% intact (Matt having dropped back on Leith Hill due to mechanical issues) and driving the front of a reasonable peloton through Dorking High Street. By this time the number of spectators was starting to increase, many of them armed with cow bells and there was a steady stream of applause and encouragement to help keep the morale up. Heading through Dorking High Street I was startled to hear one particular cheer penetrate my consciousness even through the fog of noise and distraction from wind, gears and tyres. Years of touchline support had attuned my ears to the unmistakable shout of encouragement from my father who had driven to Dorking with my mother in the hope of being able to pick me out from the thousands of other lycra clad mamil’s streaming past. I glanced over my shoulder and sure enough, my eyes confirmed what my ears already knew but they never saw me which was a shame really because I was putting in a turn on the front that Gee Thomas would have been proud of!
And so onwards we roll towards Box Hill and the last 7 or 8 miles of ego swelling downhill gradient finally bottoms out and we find ourselves once again in all too familiar surroundings. Suddenly my Gee Thomas impression is starting to look a bit foolhardy as the lower slopes of Box Hill seep their way into my legs and ask questions that I’m starting to become a little hesitant in answering! Not so the stronger members of our SWR contingent and as we approach the summit the strongest pair of our quintet look to put the hammer down and the elastic that has joined us all together for the last 70 miles or so finally snaps. Rick and I carry on together but in spite of the back pain and leg cramps that he’s starting to feel, I sense the force remains strong within him. Which is more than I can say for myself after dragging myself to the top of Headley. The hills of the last 30 miles or so have done real damage to the groups of riders on the course now and strong, fast pelotons are now fewer and further between, not to mention smaller in their composition. Fortunately I had been consoling myself on the slog up Box Hill with the thought that ‘it’s all downhill from here’ which is broadly true when you look at the course profile but actually much of that descending comes all too quickly and from beyond Leatherhead and the the 75 mile mark was probably some of the hardest riding as far as I was concerned. Energy was low, riding groups were fragmented and the terrain was flat-ish with just enough rises scattered along it to sap the energy from any momentum that you might have been building. By the time we reached Esher I had lost sight of Rick up the road and was now in a race with myself to get to the finish without bonking or cramping up in my legs – both of which I had a feeling were just around the corner. Heading into Kingston I made a conscious effort to latch on to a passing peloton and with the crowds shouting their support as I approached the town centre I found myself being swept along on a second wind which lasted about as far as the next hill heading out of Kingston and over the A3 towards Wimbledon. What I really wanted at this point was re-hydration. My bidons were by now empty and with the sun high in the sky the temperatures that had been cool for the early part of the day were now rising quickly. At the top of the final sting in the tail into Wimbledon village I saw signs for a drinks stop but vanity over my finish time got the better of me and besides, it really was all downhill from here and I pushed on nose to tail with 2 other riders as we rode through and on in a bid to reach the descent to Putney as efficiently as we possibly could.
From here the end really was in sight, less than half a commute away. Passing Parsons Green I managed to grab a gel on the run (at the third attempt) offered by waiting volunteers. It was just what I needed since the sun had warmed it virtually to the consistency of water and within a couple of minutes as I rolled on to the embankment I could already feel it lifting me for the final run in. Along the Thames I rode, in full commuter mode as I passed slower riders and without anybody willing to keep me company I pushed on along the Thames, past Parliament Square and finally swinging left to welcome applause on to the Mall.
I’ve never run a marathon or competed in any mass event quite on this scale (Paris – Roubaix probably being the closest comparison) so the sight of that strip of red tarmac festooned with Union Jacks on either side and the sound of support and yes, even commentary adding to the sense of occasion I found myself racing for the line. Yes, actually racing, swept up in some ridiculous fantasy that this was some stage win as the commentator geed us along I actually drafted someone else before pulling out and sprinting past him (I remember thinking how absurd this was and telling myself to behave but I couldn’t help it!) and over the line before finally rolling to a stop outside Buckingham Palace.
Below are the times for the SW Roulers which illustrate where the cracks started to show.
There were a number of sporting celebrities taking part this year – particularly ex rugby players but also Tim Foster of 2000 olympic rowing fame. Tim was actually a couple of years ahead of me in school rowing but I was interested to learn that he was at Bedford Modern School who shattered my school boy rowing dreams at Henley one Saturday in 1989 so it would be nice to win one back for old time’s sake.
Colin Charvis – ex Wales Rugby captain and British Lion. 5 hrs 15 min.
Matt Dawson – England and British Lion. 6 hrs 4 min
Jonathan Edwards – Triple Jump world record holder (still!!!) and Durham University alumni 4 hrs 54 min
Simon Shaw – England and British Lion. 6 hrs 42 min
Shane Williams – England and British Lion. 5 hrs 18 min
Not bad … but then there were a couple that got past
Martin Johnson – World Cup winning captain of England and British Lions. 4 hrs 32 min
Tim Foster – Olympic gold medalist in coxless fours. 4 hrs 30 mins.
Heading into the ride, I told myself that I’d be happy with 5 hours. Of course, having comfortably exceeded that reasonable expectation I’m still not happy!
My final finish position was 1138th out of 20,550 (as far as I can tell) in a time of 4:33 which means that I was just outside a whole host of benchmarks.
Just outside the top 1000 finishers.
Just outside 4 and half hours
Just outside the top 5% of riders (5.53% to be exact!)
Beaten by Tim Foster!
So the conclusion is obvious – I need to structure my training a little better, I need to buy a Garmin so that I can see my elapsed time and other vital stats and I need to come back next year and do it all again!
Further photos from the event photographers (heavily watermarked) can be viewed here.