I may have hit the peak of my cycling career this Sunday, which is ironic in an event that is categorically #notarace. If I do manage to beat being the first finisher, sprinting down The Mall, on closed roads, in the background on TV whilst Jill Douglas and David Millar are introducing the BBC’s coverage of the day, then I’ll be surprised to say the least. So with the obvious spoiler out of the way, here’s how it went down.
An early start
A horrible 4am alarm starts off the day, shortly followed by a can of coke and some caramel shortbread for breakfast. It’s an hour ride to get to Stratford for 5.15am where I’m meeting Dan Coops and any other of the RPR guys looking for a smash up in the front group. It turns out to be just me and Dan (although we were later joined by Bill Ash) and we get into our starting pen some 50 riders back to then realise the sheer scale of the (appropriately titled) ‘waves’ of riders as another couple of hundred riders fall in behind us. Mark Webber has the last word before the start, sending us off to the F1 theme song (good choice – #notarace) which was actually pretty cool.
There is a real mix of rider ability and expectation in these groups. My early thoughts are to try and follow people who have a well-pinned body number and get to the front. We head on to the A12 and start to move up towards the front, but big gaps are already appearing as people are dropping wheels. The speed is above 32mph and an unnecessary 2 minutes @ 360w gets us to the front split and shows that not paying attention can get you left behind very quickly – especially as everyone is feeling fresh.
Limehouse Link and tearing through London
On the topic of feeling fresh – getting to the front and seeing the empty roads ahead set something off in my head. I looked at Dan – is there a cross wind? – and promptly hit the front and upped the pace. >500w really shouldn’t be seen on the Garmin this early in a 100 mile event and seemed like a complete waste of energy, but I couldn’t help myself. Seeing the panic behind as people scrambled for wheels as we blasted through the Limehouse link at full speed was one of the best parts of the whole ride. OK – my heart rate hit 198bpm a mere 6.5miles in, but the brief chaos the surge caused kept us laughing for a good hour afterwards as we tore out through the City, Embankment and Knightsbridge.
As the ride went on, safety became the main concern. I started chatting to a few friends in the bunch and suddenly you’d get swamped by 30 people – it was a certainly a weird experience. Then you come into a corner and guys riding in Team Wiggins kit start divebombing! The first two hours weren’t in any way selective and if there were bad riders in the group, there was nothing to get rid of them. We ticked on out to the countryside at 25-26mph mostly cruising at 200w, with some harder sections on the inclines (for example Sawyer’s Hill where Dan’s KOM wasn’t threatened).
There were a few hairy moments as we meandered around Byfleet and Ripley. The bunch was clearly nervous on the tight and twisty roads. One guy from Paceline RT was hit by a car driving on the course (hopefully he’s OK, I didn’t see him hit the deck) and another random rider touched wheels on a semi-fast descent and dropped in the middle of the pack. Then I (and many others) nearly went down at an unmarked narrowing bridge as everyone suddenly braked. You constantly had to be on your guard to stay out of trouble and spot every hazard – which is pretty mentally tiring.
Beforehand I’d looked at the hilly section of the route and noted the climbs of Newlands Corner, Leith Hill and Box Hill at roughly 45, 55 and 65 miles respectively. I don’t ride in Surrey so it was a simple mental note that those 20 miles were going to be the hardest and if I could get through that, I could definitely stay with any group to the finish – I just needed to get into that group.
Newlands Corner wasn’t a difficult climb, going at 330w for 4minutes or so in the wheels, but it taught me the lesson that I needed to be at the front going into the next two climbs. If the wheel in front slows down, you can’t afford to be stuck behind as the fast guys go up the road. This happened a minute into the climb and luckily the lesson was learnt on the easiest climb of the 3. Leading into Leith Hill less riders were swarming around me and it felt much easier to stay in good position at or near the front – the selections had begun.
Leith Hill was definitely the hardest climb of the day – the pace people wanted to ride up here was pretty brutal. The constantly changing gradient and the steepness of some of the sections made for a tough 6 minutes @ 383w. My heart rate went above 200bpm almost immediately and sat at 204bpm until the top – and this really, really hurt. The group had detonated on the climb and maybe 7 guys were in the front, with a larger group reforming on the descent. Dan was in the third group and put in a screamer of a descent to make it back. I’d hit the bottom of the climb in 3rd or 4th wheel, hung on to the fast guys and was in prime position to then be able to sit in on the descent all the way to Box Hill – 20 minutes @ 170w was a very welcome respite.
I had mixed feelings about Box Hill as I thought people would really rip it up because it’s the last ‘major’ climb but at the same time the gradient isn’t ever that challenging so the shelter from the group should keep me in the front group. As it happened, the pace stayed very steady throughout. The power line (purple) above tracks the average consistently until the final quarter and a steady pace suited me a lot better. Again, the Catford boys were planning an acceleration and I heard something like ‘full pull’ from behind me. Seconds later they’re on the front and I was right on the wheel to the crest of the climb. Those 6 minutes were comparatively easier than Leith, but the group that came over the top was very small and select.
The hardest hour of the ride was done, the hills were done and I was feeling in very good shape for the run in back to London.
Back to London (still #notarace, though lots of race talk…)
Once the dust had settled, the lead group of 30 had some discussion about working together to the finish which was about an hour / 26 miles away. People in the group wanted to work to make sure nobody could get back on, but not everyone had the experience of riding in a daisy (double thru-and-off paceline) so it kept falling apart. A few tips were given and a smooth rotation then carried us along at a brisk 26/27mph as most of the group contributed. I alternated between taking pulls and heading to tailgun the group so I could keep an eye on who was working, and more importantly, who wasn’t.
This group looked to be the final selection and whilst not a race, someone has to cross the line first… right?
As I looked around I saw Bill Ash working hard at the front, but Dan wasn’t in the group (as he’d punctured back in Kingston). This was a real shame as I’d been riding next to him for the majority of the ride, he’d made the selection and we could’ve had all kinds of crazy fun with 1-2 attacks along embankment!
Instead, a few attacks started to go with about 10 miles to go after the final climb out of Wimbledon. In the chaos, Bill got away with an Islington CC rider passing Wimbledon Common and their 2 up move started to disappear over Putney Bridge. They worked well together to establish a 10s gap and an ineffective attack and regroup chase behind began at the bottom of the King’s Road. The cat-and-mouse games had begun as nobody wanted to waste energy to bring the break back, despite there being plenty of bodies left to do so, and there was *a lot* of looking around. I tried to get away and bridge 2 or 3 times but I was always chased down by the wrong combination of riders – those unable or unwilling to work.
Eventually it all came back together just after Vauxhall Bridge when Bill and the Islington rider slowed up a bit as the various attacks whittled down their gap. I ask Bill if he has anything left – ‘nothing‘ – and I tell the Islington rider that he is a beast because he’d been on the front (and just off the front) for so much of the ride. The group sits in one big line as we pass the Houses of Parliament, Downing Street – oh shit, there’s under 1km to go!
It was too easy to get distracted by flying past all the famous sights, which is pretty surreal. Luckily Whitehall is a nice, wide road and there was plenty of room to move up into 5th wheel for the final tricky corner as we swing around to face Admiralty Arch and see the Union Jacks lining The Mall as we funnel down through the middle.
Now it’s time to think about the sprint. I know the wind was coming from the NW, so the wind is coming from the right hand side and I should try to stay sheltered by going up on the left. I’ve also been boxed in recently in races so I took a little bit of extra wind to guarantee myself a clear run at the line. I was focusing on the metres to go markers and waiting for anyone to jump, as Bill was killing the lead out until he blew up at 300m to go (how he had anything left to do a lead out… I don’t know).
An Italian Promotech rider launches at 250m on my left and swings to the middle of the road. 1000w gets me to his wheel and the cramp starts everywhere in my legs so I sit down for a second or two. The line is approaching though and I worry I’ve left it too late. 100m to go and I am still on his wheel – it’s now or never.
Everything I’ve got is going into the pedals and slowly I draw level at 50m to go. It’s even but there’s just a few seconds left. At 25m to go the pain is unreal and I throw my bike at the line – I’ve got it by a wheel!
Just as I cross the line, a great frame is captured:
On the left is Tom and Will from RPR, and on the right is David Millar on BBC talking about how #itsnotarace but once you’re in it…it turns into one. I’m quickly ushered to some media people who want to interview me about being the first finisher while heart rates are still 190bpm+. They wanted me to say ‘Prudential Ride London Surrey 100’ for their recording but I just couldn’t get my words straight and needed 5 takes. I’m pretty sure I then gave the worst interview with basically no sound bites for their press releases. ‘Amazing’.
I think a separate journalist then overheard my interview with people from the organisers and reported that I’d never ridden more than 50 miles before (I actually said I’d never raced more than 50 miles, and how similar this felt to a race despite being #notarace). In fact, this ride took me over 10,000 miles for 2016, which if you take out rest days, is an average of roughly 50 miles a day.
Meanwhile, Bill and Dan find me and we all congratulate each other on solid rides and a lot of fun. Whilst bits of the ride were sketchy, the vast majority was brilliant and it was a privilege to ride on closed roads in London.
As ever, thanks for reading.