RideLondon 100 2018: spinning in the rain

Ah, the great British summer.

A record-breaking heatwave, parched fields, hosepipe bans and wall to wall sunshine. A little on the warm side, but perfect weather for a 100 mile jaunt out of London and into the Surrey Hills.

Having also completed the Etape in the Alps a couple of weeks ago, I was feeling pretty relaxed about RideLondon. Compared to the mountains, the London-Surrey route is flat as a pancake, or certainly as flat as the pancakes I make in that it contains a fair few lumps.

How we laughed

As the day drew closer, the weather forecast started to change a bit; still dry but with a little cloud and cooler, if anything better than before. Fast forward to Saturday, and the mask had truly dropped away to reveal what turned out to be an uncannily accurate prediction.

Rain. Wind. Rain. More rain. Gusts. Bitter tears. Rain.

Getting to the start of RideLondon is a bit traumatic as and of itself. The Olympic Park in Stratford is not particularly accessible at 5.30 on a Sunday morning, the frankly ungodly hour I and a couple of others from our charity dream team were required to arrive. Living on completely the other side of town, the only feasible option was to cycle the 15 miles to the start, meaning a 4am start and one of my all time worst breakfasts.

Pro Tip 1: mixing oats, yoghurt and water with some desperation dates and leaving it in fridge overnight does not create bircher muesli, nor anything that could be described as food.

Once you hit central London there are dozens of equally early risers trying to find their way so I was able to follow a group and even more thankfully at least (and at most) one person knew where they were going.

There’s a strange pleasure in zooming through Shoreditch while scores of kids hurl support and abuse from nightclub smoking areas. I would also like to give a special mention to the cyclist who had enough disposable income to take a black cab to the start, and bonus points for wearing a helmet in the taxi.

The start area of RideLondon is somewhat chaotic. To get to your start requires a torturous loop of the Olympic Park, and the wave system sort of breaks down due as hundreds of queuing riders create bottlenecks and people miss their designated times. Unless you are some kind of bat it’s not really possible to arrive much earlier, so just go with the flow and if you miss your wave you, join the next one.

As we eventually rolled out of the start and with the rain clouds gathering the event proper began with a fast stretch down the A12 and into central London. Flying along a closed dual carriageway on a bike is a rare pleasure and something to savour, although there’s a fair bit of crap on the surface and there were 5 or 6 people furiously mending punctures within the first mile.

Our first taste of the coming carnage was along Victoria Embankment, where the wind really started to pick up along the exposed riverbank and the pitter patter of tiny rain drops could be felt. By 10 miles in the pitter patter had matured into a large, malevolent teenager, lashing us with a downpour that would last for a good 80 miles of the route. What had started out as a pleasant ride was quickly turning into a low budget horror film with riders sliding, puncturing and shivering all around. Marshals and support was swift and plentiful for those who had bike trouble or had come off, and all of the support staff for the event did a terrific job in what must have been miserable conditions.

Thankfully as an experienced rider I had all the necessary gear to outwit the wet, such as a £20 waterproof jacket that couldn’t possibly fail and a pair of dark glasses.

Pro Tip 2/3: Spend more than £20 on a waterproof jacket. Do not wear dark glasses in the wet.

As my jacket immediately waterlogged, shoes filled with water and I went blind, it began to dawn on me that this ride might be more challenging than I thought. As insights went this turned out to be pretty solid, as it was grim for the overwhelming majority of the day.

We trekked into Surrey through deep pools of water and a magical wind that seemed to come from whichever direction we were cycling in. Having ditched the aforementioned glasses, the gritty spray and rain to the face made for pretty uncomfortable riding, although my skin is flawless today which is a plus. The hills were particularly grim, with special mention to Newlands Corner. RideLondon is extremely well organised in terms of refreshment stops, and many are at the top of hills which makes sense for weary riders in need of a snack and a drink. However, when it’s raining sideways and blowing a gale, the top of a hill is not a great place to be. The hub at the top of Newlands in particular was where dreams went to die — a cowering huddle of wretched souls praying for redemption and queuing for tea. I imagine this stretch was a little like the scene from Shawshank Redemption where the protagonist has to crawl through the sewer to escape, it was that kind of vibe.

Throughout all this spirits remained high, apart from one gentleman who had given up on any semblance of cycling and was just repeatedly cursing whilst walking slowly up a small hill with his £8,000 bike. As we conquered the hills, which were later sensibly closed for safety by the organisers, and swung back towards London the rain began to ease gradually, from biblical down to merely torrential. By the time we got to Kingston with about 20 miles to go, it was dry enough to remove my completely useless raincoat and press ahead with a feeling of mild euphoria or acute hypothermia as the end neared.

Having given up on solid food some time earlier, I was fuelling via Clif Bloks, which are frankly magical, and ended up powering along behind a giant American bloke casually doing 40kmh with no perceivable effort.

Pro Tip 4: Buy Clif Bloks

After the final sting of Wimbledon Hill everyone was in good spirits, riding in groups and generally feeling excited. This worked well until someone decided to veer across the road and clean out the front wheel of the man about 10 feet in front and to my left. Thankfully he happened to be a fully fledged ninja as he somehow, despite a massive slide and a good amount of time spent in a horizontal position, managed to stay up and avoid taking about 20 of us out just 9 miles from the line. As we all hit the brakes and contemplated a trip to hospital, many more seasoned riders uttered some truly magnificent last words which I cannot repeat here. I let myself down badly as a number of responses came out together, meaning I just shouted “Baaaaa” very loudly like a frightened sheep.

Pro Tip 5: Have good last words lined up and go down swearing like a trooper, not bleating like a farm animal.

As you get into London proper the crowds pick up, with charities (including our own magnificent SPEAR reps in Wimbledon) and onlookers out in force to cheer on the riders, and it’s a great feeling to power down Putney High Street as hundreds of people cheer you along. The crowds and support only increase as you hit Victoria Embankment and as you turn onto the Mall and the final straight it’s really quite spectacular. One last sprint over the line and it’s high fives with strangers, medals and selfies with Buckingham Palace all round (or in my case, a fence); the brutal conditions making the feeling all the sweeter.

Proud but haunted

All 5 of our team, riding for SPEAR, completed this gruelling day out in style, so shout out to Matt, SJP, Frankie and Bill who made it look easy when it was incredibly tough both physically and mentally.

So far we’ve raised nearly £2,500 for SPEAR (huge thanks to all who have donated!!), and if you’d like to help us with the last push towards our target you can do so here!

Overall then, an unexpectedly tough day out but an achievement everyone can be proud of. It’s a really well organised event, a beautiful route and even the worst of British weather couldn’t stop thousands of people from completing the challenge and raising millions for good causes.