Sunday 4th August 2013. The Olympic Park, London.
A year on from the balmy party evening that became known as “Super Saturday” and the Olympic Park in the East End of London is looking a little less than super. For starters it’s 7am, it’s cloudy and decidedly cool. An enthusiastic PA is trying to rally the 8,000 or so cyclists still being corralled into starting lanes but most look half asleep and are more interested in eating a last minute banana or trying to jump the significant queues for the banks of Portaloo’s which have been set up between the Copper Box and what was the Media Centre. The other remaining buildings – the elegant but lonely Velodrome, the stripped-back Olympic Stadium and the now wingless Aquatic Centre are all off limits and surrounded by building site fences. Traces of the pathways between the key sites are now criss crossed with access roads and it’s hard to reconcile the air of lacklustre anticipation with the thronging energy of a year ago. With a number of articulated lorries and a small fleet of race cars waiting nearby for the afternoon action, it actually feels a bit like a ferry terminal. In terms of a showpiece legacy event the start of the inaugural Ride London-Surrey 100 is decidedly low-key.
I first thought about riding the Olympic Road Race route last year but somehow 2012 passed without me making it happen. The London-Surrey 100 seemed to be the perfect way of rectifying this and, having missed out on a place in what turned out to be the massively oversubscribed ballot, I was lucky enough to be offered a charity spot to ride for Great Ormond Street Hospital from their reserve list. GOSH helped cared for my first son Dylan in the last few days of his very short life so the chance to raise funds for them and do the event in their name made me very happy. I had taped a picture of him to my Garmin as I left my house in South East London earlier and knew I would be thinking of him throughout the day.
Eventually my starting group’s number is called and I head further into the funnelling mass of lycra being guided towards the official start line which is still some way off in the distance beside the Media Centre. I’m in one of the very last waves to leave – some poor souls were up at 4am for a 6am start – and we hear that no-one has fallen off on the start line yet. Not even Boris. Not bad considering we have 20,000 sleep deprived riders who have just spent at least an hour standing around waiting. The PA also announces the departure of some of the celebrities as they depart, including a shout out for the “Wiggle-Honda girls.” He says Jo Rowsell is alongside Dani King and Laura Trott, which is heartening news considering her heavy fall in the Women’s Crit race the previous evening. I fire off a last minute Tweet saying it’s great to hear she is here – only to find out later that he got it wrong and she was actually in hospital with a broken collarbone. Sorry Jo – hope it didn’t sound like I was rubbing it in! Still blissfully ignorant of the social media faux pas I have just committed I eventually find myself at the start line with an long empty stretch of tarmac yawning out in front of my eyes. Squeeze’s Cool for Cats cranks up to accompany our departure and then we are off. 100 miles of closed roads through London, the lower Thames Valley and the beautiful Surrey Hills await. [map here]
But first there is the small matter of the A12 cross route. 4 lanes of swooping motorway-like bends that barrel down from the M25 in the north east through some of London’s less famous neighbourhoods before plunging into the Blackwall Tunnel. Usually this would be territory that cyclists would have to avoid at all costs but take away the cars for a few hours and it becomes a most thrilling parcours and a great way to start the real work of the day. I have set off in Blue wave T and as we approach the official timing start two miles down the road we are joined by the Black T’s on the other side of the road. I decide to join them and move over into the fast lane going down the wrong way of a 3 lane highway. We sweep into the Limehouse Link Tunnel whooping and hollering like inmates let loose, which in many ways we are. These first few miles quite overshadow the journey through central London which is almost totally unmemorable in comparison. In fact it’s not until we reach the elevated section of the A4 and repeat the trick – though only on the ‘right side’ this time – that things fall into place again. I remember seeing some poor sod with a detached rear mech walking alongside at mile 4 – I hope he hadn’t come far for the ride – and have a vague recollection of Parliament Square and then the Natural History Museum but you soon realise that closed roads mean you get none of the looking around of normal cycling. No idle examinations of buildings and billboards whilst waiting at lights, no constant referrals to street signs and landmarks for route guidance, no anticipatory checks for car doors, errant children, late office workers or U-turning taxis. No stopping at all. So you quickly stop looking around because you are continuously looking forward. Who is coming up in front? What is the best way past them? My late start time meant that I was doing a steady amount of overtaking for most of the day, with only the odd chaingang coming past me after the various stop points along the route. The first one – a group of about 5 Black T’s – slid past me as we went through Hammersmith and I realised later that the question I should have been asking myself at this point was, “Which good group should I be getting myself into?” But no. Half an hour into the ride I was happy enough grinding along solo, nose in the wind, not a care in the world. For a while at least.
We crossed the river for the first time at Sheen, near Hogarth’s House (and his more famous roundabout) and into Richmond Park. Here everything changed and started becoming memorable. The clouds had rolled away and the sun broke through to illuminate the yellowed grass like a field of sunflowers in France in July. Ahead, beyond the right turn up Sawyer’s Hill, a line of riders rolled purposefully through the open countryside, oblivious to the more worldly matters beyond the tarmac. Bright colours of jersey and helmets stood out against the dark trees beyond, which were in turn framed by blue sky. We were no longer a bunch of cyclists chancing our arms on London’s mean streets, we were a peloton! The Tour de France theme tune swelled in my head and I allowed myself a moment of indulged fantasy. I knew it wouldn’t last, I knew it couldn’t last but I allowed it for a moment and savoured it. I remembered the incline and the sweeping curve at Ham House from a ride I did a couple of years ago and we passed the first drinks station soon after. Maybe it was the indulgent thoughts from a few moments earlier but by the time we arrived there I had firmly made up my mind that, barring injury or a mechanical, I was not stopping at all on this 100 miles. I have done a couple of centuries before but always with numerous stops so this was a fair step up to be contemplating on a warm day. The roadside support in the Park was thicker than it had been in town and the shouts and cheers became more obvious as the day wore on.
Across the River twice more after Kingston, cutting the nose off one of the Thames’ more looping turns. Past Hampton Court in full sun, 25 miles in, where the first of the 3 major rest Hubs is located. A glimpse through the gates as I flash by shows long lines at the loos and lots of stretching going on. Beyond here, beyond Molesey and Walton, and I’m in very unfamiliar territory. I cycle mainly in Kent and Essex – firmly Eastside – and whilst the landscape is similar in look and feel, the names are different and I quickly lose track of where I am in relation to my sole point of reference, the River. Of course, on a signposted route with still a good 15,000 people ahead of you to follow being ‘lost’ is not an immediate problem. I continue to pick a person a few hundred yards ahead, catch them and then look for the next one. Progress is good, though the number of chain gangs coming out of the Hub increases and I try and catch a couple for a few miles. As Weybridge, Pyrford and West Horsley come and go the thought of the Hills edges towards the front of my mind. I’d copied a trick from the pro’s and taped a circular printout of the route profile around my toptube. Edging it a little further round every ten miles kept me up to speed with what was coming next. And the line which had been wonderfully flat up until now was beginning to quiver and rise up and down more sharply. [route profile here]
I don’t mind going uphill too much. I don’t carry much weight and I can usually hold my head up higher at the top of a climb than my awful descending allows at the bottom. I had heard that Box Hill – the last of the days three ‘proper’ climbs isn’t anywhere as hard as it’s reputation suggests and it was obvious from the first little bump on my toptube profile that Newlands Corner wasn’t to be feared either. The middle one though, Leith Hill at 60 miles, had garnered some debate on a cycle forum I’m on and I knew that would be the main test of of the day. Two steep ramps breaking up a longer drag, “Get out of the seat at the brick wall and then again at the house”, had been the advice. But first Newlands Corner, nestling just East of Guildford and rising to the ridge of the Abury Downs. I remember a fine looking house at the base, just before the turn onto the climb where a King of the Mountains sign – presumably for the Pro’s who would be doing the route later in the afternoon – greeted us as the road angled upwards. Straightish and rising through woodlands, it’s a pleasant climb – though many were suffering on the left hand side of the road. By now I was seeing M, N, O and P wave starters and one or two were already pushing. Up ahead a pink jersey number, No. 1 , caught my eye and I wondered who had bagged that one. As I passed I had quick look over and found Boris toiling manfully, his 17 stones still aboard his Boardman, staring resolutely at each next few feet of tarmac. I gave him some polite encouragement and left him to his considerable task.
Pretty villages, whose names escaped me, followed Newlands. Most probably Gomshall or Holmbury St Mary. I passed another Hub around the 50mile mark and reviewed my progress. Two hours thirty for the half distance. Much faster than anticipated. I began to entertain thoughts of a sub 5 hour finish and also began to worry that I might get back to London before my family made it over from Blackheath to meet me. Still early days though – anything might happen yet. I twisted my profile map round again as we swung North for the first time and looked intently at the large spike which hove into view. Up ahead a similar spike in the landscape was doing its own bit of hoving. Leith Hill. Just time for an energy gel and we were on it. Up ahead three distinct lanes had formed: pushers on the left – significantly more than at Newlands -, grinders in the middle – grunting and groaning like Ladies Finals day at Wimbledon -, and attackers on the right. I edged over to the right, waited for the brick wall to arrive and pushed on. I climbed fast and fluidly. Great. Now where’s this house and the second ramp. No, seriously – where is the house? My calves start to burn and there is still no goddam house. A corner, lots of supporters but no house. I think I’ve given too much too early and begin to struggle to maintain speed. And then there it is. A house. And a bloody great ramping bit of road beside it. Big gulp, grit teeth, locate someone far ahead to focus on and push to reel them in. Again. And again to to the top. As the road levels out and I begin to inwardly celebrate this small victory both my calves go into spasm and I almost come to a total halt. Cramp haunts my lower legs for a few miles until I can stretch it out in between pedal strokes and get some more water in my system. It a worrying 5 miles with 40 still to go but the sharp pains soon disappear and the more familiar dull thudding in my thighs returns. I always get the 60 mile knock and today is no different.
After the trials of Leith, Box Hill is wonderful. Super smooth, Olympic grade tarmac, a gentle constant gradient and wide easy switchbacks. You pick a speed at the bottom and keep it all the way up through beautiful grassy hills. Spectators are few as the area is off limits due to it being a nature SSSI but there are plenty of cyclists at the top who have dismounted to record the view. I press on, into the shadowy bowels of a long descent where, for safety reasons this time, no spectators are allowed either. No-one witnesses my proudest moment of the day then; me descending capably, without touching the brakes at the merest hint of a curve, the smallest crack in the surface, or just because I think I’m going too bloody fast. I have an epiphany. I’m ok at going downhill when I know there are no cars coming the other way. I’m still on a bit of a high from this as we come through Leatherhead and take the barriered corners which snake through the centre pretty flat out. The cramps after Leith Hill have pretty much put paid to the sub 5 hour finish but I’m still trying at this point. By Cobham though I know that that game is up. 20 miles to run and less than an hour on that particular clock. My back is now hurting too and I’m having to stretch that more often. I start looking for wheels to draft again but the ones travelling at my pace seem to be few and far between. The picture on my Garmin helps me through this tough period. I get in a three near noisy Kingston after riding with big posse of British Heart Foundation riders for a while and the pace picks up again. Too much it turns out and I’m alone again by Wimbledon. Nevermind – Wimbledon is practically in central London isn’t it. Just a quick roll to the finish, no? I turn a corner. What the Hell is that? No-one said anything about a hill in Wimbledon. It’s probably just a pimple (yep, 100 feet according to Strava) but it took my now ravaged legs and kneed them like a bully in a primary school playground. I toiled, Boris-like, up that mound and puffed and blew at the top as though I’d just conquered the Galibier. Another gel, another piece of malt loaf, the last swig of water. I’ve still got 10 miles to go. I will have to make a stop after all.
But first Putney Bridge and the official Great Ormond Street Fanzone. I know my family will be at Whitehall but having 200 strangers screaming just for you as you pass was a bigger boost than the energy gel. I tried to straighten myself out a little, made sure I was on their side of the road and put back on the race face that had slipped off somewhere around 82 miles. I may have even got on the drops… Once the bridge was past, the hands were quickly back on the hoods, the grimace was quickly back on the face and the thoughts of ‘Just 5 More Miles To Go’ back in the brain. A drinks station by the side of the road heralds an Formula 1 style pitstop with refuelling taking less than 15 seconds, even with a decision of whether an electrolyte tablet should be added (Oh yes) and then it’s Chelsea and the Embankment, with the River accompanying the final run in. I count off the markers. Battersea Bridge, Albert Bridge, Chelsea Bridge, Vauxhall Bridge, The Tate Britain, Millbank, Lambeth Bridge, Parliament Square, Whitehall. I scan the crowds, looking for familiar faces. There they are, right at the other end, just before Trafalgar Square and the turn under Admiralty Arch onto the finish straight. I wave. They shout. Brilliant. One last corner and I feel I have got enough left for a mini sprint. On the drops. I don’t overtake anyone but no-one overtakes me. I cross the line with a time of 5 hours 13 minutes and 46 seconds. And I’m really pleased with that.
We get a medal, Marathon style, and a goodie bag of freebies, of which the chocolate milk is by far the best item and I head to the Great Ormond Street reception at the ICA for a cup of tea and a massage. My family are already there and I sit with wobbly legs whilst they tell me about their morning and raid my goodie bag. I watch a few of the riders crossing the line from the balcony and then get changed out of my kit. Job done. We head home to watch the pro’s doing the same course on TV but it feels disconnected. They operate at another level and I can’t equate what I’ve done with what they are doing. Quite right too.
I raised £1,800 for GOSH. The event was fantastically well organised with marshals manning practically all of the obstacles in the middle of the roads. The roadside support from the public was great and The Mall was four deep and they were banging on the boards like Belgians at a Spring Classic. Thank you for helping me round.