By far the best sportive I’ve ridden so far.
Admittedly the number of sportives I’ve ridden isn’t particularly high, but having ridden some of the bigger sportives available I feel as though I can make that claim. Two years ago I would have said that the Tour of the South East was the best I’d ridden, and I was disappointed to see that the 2016 edition had been postponed. I don’t want to take away from anything else I’ve ridden previously, and the ToSE was one of the most enjoyable rides I’ve done and the only organised over two days, but the Ride London is on a different scale to the rest.
Ride London is a different beast altogether. With 26,000 participants it needs to be big, and we got a great send off from the Olympic Park (first time I’ve been to West Ham’s new ground). Standing in the holding zones is a very relaxed atmosphere. Any pre-ride nerves I had were quickly dissipated by the friendly people all around. Organisation was smooth and we were set off exactly at our start time of 7.07.
The first thing I noticed leaving the Olympic Park was the speed. Not necessarily the speed of the cyclists, as a lot of people seemed to be taking things easy , but the speed of the roads. Not being limited to the gutter of every major road we cycled on through London gave you the pick of the surface. It’s clear now why the peleton in a pro race snakes its way across the road, looking for the best line to take.
Of course as the route made its way through London there were some pace lines forming which made things a bit quicker, and also more sociable at times. As we left London I checked my Garmin to see that I had been averaging close to 40 kmh. My training rides this year, building up to the Ride London had been averaging anywhere between 23-28 kmh so this came as some surprise.
The majority of the ride, until the hills, passed without incident. I spent some of my time jumping after other people’s wheels and getting towed along but for the vast majority I was the one doing the towing – although I was completely unaware of this until I decided to sit up and have something to eat or turn around – or I was on my own. The route out to Surrey is very well planned, and it was a great opportunity to pass through Richmond Park surrounded by other cyclists.
After leaving London and getting to the countryside, but before the hills, was where the real test began to set in for me. I found this period relatively dull, and with over 30 miles in my legs, and not even close to half way finished, the pace still continuing to be higher than I had thought possible, I began to question why I was even still on my bike. Taking part in this event on your own, with the purpose of pushing yourself for a good finish time can be a world of pain. It becomes quite difficult to find someone riding a similar pace to you to share the work with and the terrain, whilst not exactly “rolling” isn’t flat either.
I was well aware of the fact that I had the hills in sight though, and this motivated me. In my training rides I’d been covering over 1000m of climbing in most of my longer rides and in much shorter distances than I’d be covering for the Ride London. The hills was where I felt like I was going to be strong and this was the case.
Newlands Corner is the first real test of the day and it was passed with ease. Moving myself to the right hand side of the road to quickly pass those I was leaving behind. Keeping an eye on my heart rate, making sure I wasn’t digging too deep I was up and over relatively quickly, but I knew the worst was yet to come.
People make a big deal out of Box Hill. People who don’t know much about riding a bike make a big deal out of Box Hill actually. The reason it was covered so many times in the Olympic Road Race, in my opinion, was to make it into something of a challenge. Getting over Box Hill is relatively easy. Getting over it 7 times and at pace probably isn’t. Leith Hill on the other hand is somewhat of a bitch, for want of a better term.
Leith Hill also appears before Box Hill. Coming just after the half way point it slows everything down. People who seemed to have been comfortable on the flat for half the ride were now falling backwards. It actually took me some time to realise we were on Leith Hill. It wasn’t until we got to the small group of buildings that I realised where I was. That was when I switched on my GoPro to record the Bitch. Similar to many mass participation cycling events, these obstacles can cause somewhat of a bottle neck, so again I moved to the right, stayed in the saddle and span my way up. I didn’t allow the reputation of the hill to get into my head at all and kept a nice pace, keeping an eye on my heart rate and letting some of the even more accomplished climbers pass on my right.
Towards the top of the climb the percentage really jumps, which presents a problem, because for some of those on the road it was the breaking point. Some people abandoned their steads and chose (or were forced) to walk. I was out of the saddle by now and breathing hard.
I managed to crest the climb at a good pace and set a new PB, as I realised when I later checked Strava, but I was to pay with a bout of cramp above my knees at the bottom of the decent. As much as my legs felt good, I dug far too deep and pushed too far on the steeper sections. This left me without much in the tank on what should have been quite a quick section joining Leith Hill to Box Hill. I struggled in a big way here though, and again the doubts about finishing were creeping in. I knew I could finish a 100 mile bike ride, but now I was going so well, and my average pace was still above 30 kmh I wanted to finish quick.
Box Hill, came and went in another record time for me. I’ll admit, it wasn’t easy, but nor was it hard in the same way that some of my training hills had been. It’s a lovely road to cycle up and you really are rewarded with some stunning views, but I didn’t have enough time to take them in. It was here that I realised I might be able to break 5 hours for 100 miles so things began to get quite serious. Originally I’d said I’d be happy with 5 hours 45 minutes, but now it was in sight, I wanted 5 hours.
The last 30 miles is definitely considerably more “rolling” than the first 30 miles of flat road and with the worst of the climbing complete it was going to be a struggle to maintain my pace and have enough for a quick finish. I also knew I was going to have to stop, something I’d hoped to avoid, for a call of nature and some more water. I decided to stop around 80 miles in, not at one of the bigger hub stops to avoid the crowds and make it quick. This helped hugely and the next 10 miles passed in somewhat of a blur.
This last section of the ride was by far my favourite. By now the crowds had begun to line the streets and there was a real carnival atmosphere through each of the towns and villages we passed. It was great to see people cheering and smiling, even if isn’t for you personally, its just a great boost and it definitely put a smile on my face.
The last big test was Wimbledon Hill. I was out of the saddle quickly here, having been warned that it’s short and punchy. I wasn’t going to spin my way up I was going to attack it. Nearly every charity that had a rider entered had a big group of support here, and I imagine, if you were riding for a charity it would have been an incredible experience. The road was filled with colour on each side and the noise was actually quite loud.
Over Wimbledon Hill and things began to get serious. There were a number of chain gangs passing me by here and I picked one to get dragged along by. I’d noticed a cyclist with the same start time as me from her jersey number and decided to follow her wheel through to the finish. It seemed like an easy idea at the time but it most certainly wasn’t.
She was sat on the wheel of a guy who seemed a fair bit older than me, but a fair bit fitter and wiser as well. He was happy to do the pulling and as we began the approach into central London he really put the hammer down. The pace was unbearable at times and I didn’t think I was going to make it to the finish with this group. I fully understand that this isn’t a race, but had you tried to tell me that as I got dropped off the wheels coming past Parliament, you might not have liked my response.
I emptied myself to try and get back and managed to get on, a few wheels further back now than I had been with about 1.5 km to go. As we turned left to come under Admiralty Arch the woman who I had originally followed jumped out to the right and tried to sprint past. I quickly closed the gap and decided to wait.
It is quite a strange feeling coming into the finishing straight. Something you have watched so many times on TV as you watch the sprinters fight it out for position, the crowd cheering everyone on. The commentators counting down the meters now rather than kilometers.
The older guy in red had opened up now; down on the drops, head down, out the saddle. I still waited just pushing slightly before I moved out to the right, dropped the chain onto a higher gear and go out of the saddle. After 100 miles I was going to make this as close to a professional finish as I could. I managed to pull ahead with about 100 m left. It wasn’t him that I was happy about beating though, it was me.
Over the course of 5 hours and 3 seconds I’d pushed myself harder than I ever had before on a bike. I’d smashed what I thought I was capable of, set new PBs on most of the Strava segments I’d previously ridden and finished in what I think is a rather respectable time. The feeling of elation and relief at having finished the course was quite overwhelming and I had to fight off some tears as I passed Buckingham Palace to collect my finishers medal.
The Prudential Ride London 100 was one of my greatest cycling achievements and one which I hope I can replicate next year.