Last year’s Ride London was a complete wash-out, but still strangely satisfying despite the diminished achievement of “only” cycling 86 miles in the remains of a hurricane. But with a ballot place secured, this year I was confident that I could cover the 100 miles and had my sights set on a better time. Both a slow 2014 time and an upgrade from hybrid to road bike in early spring made that goal achievable, but there’s no doubt that an extra year of riding, and a lot of long rides in the build-up, put me in a much better position than I was last year.
There was no way the weather could be worse than last year. In fact, I can’t think of a single way that conditions could have been better: light winds, strengthening from the south during the day to push us back into London; and the temperature, if a little on the warm side, wasn’t blazingly hot – at least it wasn’t if you kept moving.
The first challenge to overcome was the hour-long wait before the start. Chatting to a couple of other riders, stuffing some more food into me, and finding a portaloo that I figured would buy me another hour on the road all passed the time, though. The organisation at the start line seemed even better this year too and we set off dead on time at 8:15am.
I had resolved to take it easy for the first hour, but riding along with hundreds of other cyclists just seemed so much easier than solo rides that I found I was cruising at close to 20mph without seeming to need much effort. The target time I’d put on my application form was 6 hours 50 minutes, although I was confident in beating that and was hoping for close to 6 hours on the bike, and at this rate I’d be well under that time.
As well as increased speed, hill training was also paying off as Richmond Park felt much flatter than I remembered it being last year. Maybe we took a different route around it. I also felt that, in contrast to the 2014 ride, I didn’t have quite the same stream of riders passing me by and I seemed to be spending more of my time on the right hand side of the road than the left.
From the official times, my easy first 25 miles were covered with an average speed of about 18.5mph – not fast by a good rider’s standards but way above what I would achieve on the road alone, and I hadn’t felt like I was pushing myself hard either.
I stopped to refill my water bottles at mile 38 as I’d already finished the litre and a half I’d taken to the start line. My bladder was feeling the effects of that too, but after taking one look at the queue for the toilets I decided I’d push on to Newlands Corner as I remembered there being much better facilities there. Then a few miles down the road I spotted a few portaloos set up over to the right in the layby of a National Trust property. I checked behind me, moved over to the right hand side of the road and put my hand up as I slowed. Disaster nearly struck as a slower rider on the left hand side of the road spotted the same toilets and took a sudden right turn towards them, cutting right across my path. I think I might have been able to stop even if he hadn’t, but with my back wheel locked up I came very close to ploughing into the side of him.
Still, portaloo navigated with the absolute minimum of surfaces touched along the way, it was time to put something other than Soreen malt loaf and oat bars into my stomach and I broke out the sandwich I’d packed that morning. With a target to beat I wasn’t going to waste any time hanging around in a layby so I ate it on the move and, with a masterstroke of bad planning, I was cramming the last of it down just before hitting the hill up to Newlands.
Billed as one of the big three hills on the ride, Newlands didn’t seem particularly steep nor particularly long. I skipped the hub at the top and was looking forward to Leith Hill in another ten miles. My average speed had dropped slightly due to the stop for water and at the toilets, but at 47 miles I was at 2:41:33, including the two stops, which would put me at close to 5:30 for the full distance – a time I never thought I’d get anywhere near.
Trouble struck just at the beginning of the climb, though, as it was obvious that the gaggle of riders just ahead weren’t cycling slowly up the hill but were either walking or, a bit further up, just standing still. There was no point trying to ride at that speed so I got off and walked like everyone else, but within a few minutes we were at a standstill. Shouts from down the hill had us lining up either side of the road to let two police motorbikes and a support car past and it was obvious there was something happening up ahead. Although, I have to say I was impressed at how everyone cleared the road so quickly to let the emergency vehicles past.
With the summit still over a mile away it seemed possible that an accident on the descent had blocked the road, which would mean an extremely long wait or, more likely, someone had gotten into difficulty on the way up. Twice more we had to clear the road to let both a St Johns Ambulance and a regular ambulance past, and the sound of the air ambulance landing a few hundred yards away made it more likely that it was something that had happened on the climb. That indeed seems to have been what happened and news has emerged today that a 55 year old man died on the lower part of the hill.
Around 40 minutes after we had been brought to a stop a marshal walked down the hill telling us that the police would be opening the road soon and the ride would be resuming. I’ve no idea how many people were behind us by now but when we set off it became clear that the incident had only happened a hundred yards ahead of where I was and there must now be a couple of thousand cyclists backed up down the hill.
Setting off up the hill wasn’t easy, especially as many were either walking or struggling to clip in and get started on the slopes but weren’t getting out of the way for those that were riding. I also discovered that my speedo doesn’t register anything less than 2mph. But within another hundred yards the road started to clear and I had a relatively free run up the steepest parts of Leith Hill. This part of the route had been missed out last year, and rightly so, but I’d ridden up it as part of a sportive a few months later. It had seemed obscenely steep back then, but this year it wasn’t too bad at all.
So, with the biggest test of the day out of the way, it was just a long descent and a few more miles to Box Hill, something I was genuinely looking forward to as I’d ridden it once before and remembered it as relatively gentle with some great views.
Progress was slowed slightly by the reintroduction of slower riders. We had surmised whilst stopped at the bottom of Leith Hill whether the short-cut would be put into use and indeed it had, no-doubt due to the sheer volume of riders that would have been backed up behind the road closure. Now riders who had been sent around Leith Hill to avoid a logjam were filtering back onto the main course, the only problem that they were about an hour ahead of where they would have been and travelling a fair bit slower. It’s hard to remember that last year I was one of those bothersome charity riders when you just want to get moving, but the point of the event, and the relatively flat course profile, is intended to encourage exactly those kinds of riders in the first place. Riders like I was eighteen months ago, or even six months ago. No doubt there were many along the way this year who wished I would just get out of their way too.
As the road turned up Box Hill the number of riders struggling with the distance combined with the climb became apparent. Box Hill isn’t all that steep, although it’s longer than Leith, and although there weren’t many riders walking up there were quite a few moving slowly and in a way that suggested their legs would keep turning but there was no more speed in them. This and the other small hills before the end were the points where the huge volume of riders on the road became apparent as there were times when there was just no way past. Still, I’d had plenty of benefit from sitting in the wheels of other riders or moving between groups so this was only a small price to pay.
Over the top of Box Hill, avoiding riders who had decided it was okay just to stop in the road to take a photo, there was another long and fast descent. Both water bottles were running low again so I stopped at the hub in Leatherhead at mile 75 and had to queue for some even less pleasant portaloos. Before Leith Hill I had my mind on a good event time as well as a good on-the-bike time, but the 45 minute stoppage had put thoughts of that out of my mind. Anyway, it seemed a good time to sort everything out at once and I figured I had enough fluid both on my bike and out of my body to reach the finish. Now it was just a case of judging my energy for the last 25 miles.
And the last 25 miles flew by. According to the stats, miles 75 to 85 were covered at 19.7mph and 85 to 100 at 21.2mph, which is a 20.6mph average for the last quarter of the entire ride. It felt good to be finishing strongly and I found myself riding along with a fairly fast group at the end and having the rare experience of riders wanting to stay on my wheel rather than the other way around.
The Mall was a bit crowded for a sprint finish so I just tried to leave myself a gap in front in case any of the photos looked half-decent. Given my bolt-upright riding position at the best of times I’m sure they won’t, but one can hope.
My legs were tired at the end, but then I’d been burning as much as I could to finish fast. There was just some food and drink to be had before the ride back home. By the end of the day I’d covered 115 miles in total, which is just a touch further than my longest day’s ride back in May.
My official finish time was 6:35:58. Take off the 45 minutes being stationary on Leith Hill and the ride was easily under 6 hours. Knock off another ten minutes for the three stops and that gives me about 5:40 on the bike, a time which I’m both extremely happy with and determined to improve upon, if I get another chance.
Already I’m hoping to get another ballot place next year, although 2015’s event is going to be a tough one to beat.