It’s the night before the 2016 RideLondon 100 and I’m looking out of my cheap hotel room. On top of the rickety fire escape sits a fake owl. He’s surrounded by pigeon shit. I hope to do a better job tomorrow.
This is the 4th RideLondon, which is a 100 mile Sportive on closed roads, from The Olympic Park, out into the Surrey Hills, and then back to The Mall in central London. I’m not really into Sportives, something about cable tying a number to the front of my bike is at odds with my aesthetic standards, much like my big nose and weird ears. I can’t do much about the latter two, but I can avoid sportives. Sportives normally mean paying cash to ride on roads that you could just ride on for free. They might provide some cake but with careful planning, dedication and deep concentration, I believe you can provide your own cake.
If I’m only barely tolerating the number that is cable tied to the front of my bike, I’m doing a much worse job with the helmet and frame stickers, both of which are in a bin somewhere in W1A.
This Sportive is different, though. It’s 100 miles of closed roads with some seriously talented riders. At the front it’s as fast and hard as the majority of races that you’ll do. In fact, for the rest of this report I’m going to call it a race. If you revisit this site and I’ve amended that to ‘Sportive’ then it’s because the RideLondon lawyers came at me. Hard.
The hardest part of RideLondon is the start. Not just the dodging of wheels as you chase daylight, and clear roads for the first few miles, but actually getting to the start line. My wave leaves at 06:04 and so I need to be there by about 05:30. I probably need to get up at about 3am. The only time you should get up at 3am is to get a plane to go on holiday. The only thing you should be doing at 5.30am is reluctantly forcing down a pint in a badly named airport pub with a name like ‘Bar De Voyager’.
In the pen and I’ve found my teammates, Jake, Gruesome and TTM. TTM pops for a piss and drops his sunglasses into the unspeakable scene at the bottom of the portaloo. If it hadn’t been so early he’d have been wearing them rather than having them hanging off the back of his head. Why does cycling have to be so mean all the time?
The pen’s absolutely full and our team is separated by about 5 rows of riders. This doesn’t bother the lad who jumps the barriers in order to bypass all the orderly folk in the pen, before jumping back in at the front of the bunch. As he does so he’s shouting encouragement back to his mate who is firmly still in the pen. Presumably he’s pretending to not know the queue jumper. We all decide that we absolutely do not want to be this guy. This guy is a sign of society’s imminent collapse. I’m safe in the knowledge that I’ve been hoarding canned goods and have rudimentary navigational skills. I’ll be a king in the new world.
We’re let off later than advertised, at around 06:08. I start weaving through the bunch immediately, looking for TTM up ahead. Gruesome has never done this race before and says he might just have a nice ride, or something to that effect. A few KMs up the road and his competitive edge will have kicked in so nicely that I’ve got an Ian Stannard like engine to draft behind.
In the first few kilometers, the course takes us through a tunnel that would normally be the sort of busy and terrifying road where only a garmin malfunction would take you. Today we’re doing about 55kph through it. A sharp sound of smashing carbon bounces down the tunnel as I approach the first of the days’ big crashes. From the other end of the tunnel comes the sound of hundreds of riders shouting ‘SLOWING’. I’m at the sweet spot where those sounds meet and it’s a sound that will haunt me until the end of my days. The way the sound was trapped in the tunnel I imagine it’s still bouncing around in there now. The tunnel of the eternal shout will London’s newest tourist attraction. If you’re visiting see if you can spot my contribution. It's the vaguely midlands voice saying “shit”.
Out the other side and I eventually make my way up onto TTM’s wheel for the first time. Gruesome joins us and we’ll ride most of the race together. Those two are absolute engines who can do long turns pushing over 45kph. I help out a couple of times but can offer about 30 seconds before I start to fear that I’m going to blow in the first 20km. I’ll do my work when the road starts to go up and down in back half of the race.
I’d quite like to eat something in the first hour, but we’re constantly going full gas and so it’s quite difficult to unwrap any of the bars I’ve brought with me. My breakfast plans are on hold for now.
Somewhere on the other side of Richmond Park and I’ve managed to eat and the race has relaxed a bit. We’ve caught a mass of riders and are just gently working our way through them. Then TTM kicks the pace up and we’re off the front again going full gas. I think he’s after some Strava cups but it turns out we’re chasing down the group that started 4 minutes in front of us. I do maybe 45 seconds on the front in pursuit, inspired by the chance to chill out once we catch them.
At this point we hit the narrow Surrey lanes. They’re inconsistently narrow which catches out one rider at a pinch point who rides straight into a big, soft crash barrier. The part of me that wonders what it would be like to have an airbag go off in my face thinks about doing the same thing.
Me, TTM and Gruesome are riding this one together. It makes my job much easier on the flat where I can just follow them. It also makes my job much easier on the hills where I can ride to their pace rather than doing my usual thing of letting my 57kg frame do it’s thing of trying to be Domenico Pozzovivo. I’ve really got it easy this morning.
Approaching Leith Hill and we’re all together. I don’t plan on doing anything than ride with my teammates up this one but my competitiveness kicks in and I start weaving my way through riders who are grinding up the climb. At the top I get to freewheel for a couple of minutes before TTM comes flying past to lead us down the descent. Gruesome’s a bit further back down the hill but we’ll see him again in a bit.
The next climb is Box Hill and I ride this on the front of the group that we’ve formed, keeping it at a comfortable pace for everyone. Over the top and I make that pace a little bit less comfortable. Box Hill is not a challenging climb, the hardest part comes after the official summit when you hit a long slow drag that keeps going up. Why am I still climbing after the summit? Another sign of society’s imminent collapse, probably.
This is where I can really contribute, keeping the pace high up this long drag, before TTM takes over to lead us down the hill at terminal velocity. Before that can happen TTM points out that that hissing noise is coming out of my rear tyre. Puncture. Bollocks.
We both stop but the group carries on, chasing an official sub-4 hour time. Our chance of that has probably just gone up in smoke, or whatever it is that comes out of a burst inner tube. Air. It’s air that goes in an inner tube. Having had to stop, my official time becomes irrelevant, and I’ll just go with the time that my auto-pausing Garmin shows. It’s a quick change but not so quick that we don’t see Gruesome lead a big group past us.
We get quickly back up to speed and develop an unspoken agreement. I’ll lead on the uphill sections, TTM will do big turns on the flat. On the downhill bits I’ll occasionally be coasting on the front until TTM decides that I’m using gravity well enough. At this point he’ll take over and take us up to the correct speed.
We keep picking up group after group. At one point I tell TTM that we’ll get on the back of the next group and then assess how fast they’re going before deciding our next course of action.
“Nothing” is TTM’s almost immediate response. The group is doing nothing. We pick up the pace and go around them. We’ll do this with every group we meet from now until the finish. Each time we tear off the stronger riders from the group, like one of those comets on the edge of the solar system that picks up all the space junk. Unfortunately for that metaphor, TTM and I are probably not worthy of being described as comet-like, the other riders are definitely not space junk.
We’ve assembled a decent group for our run to the finish and for the next 25km or so we’ll attempt to get a chain gang going. The chainy is never more than 6 or 7 riders doing turns, with about 10 riders just sitting on the back. If this was a race I could understand that, but we’re working together here. Working together to get the best time across the line that we can.
Occasionally some new blood can be convinced to come through and take a turn but they either stall once they hit the wind, or have to push so hard that they open up a bike length sized gap before they pull over onto the slower side of the chain. This all makes things very inefficient and quite stressful. I shouldn't be giving riders instructions on how to ride in a chainy at 140km into a race.
Patience wears thin and TTM leads a group of about 4 off the front of the group. I’m caught a few riders back but I know who I need to be with. A big effort and I’m back with the riders who are committed to working together all the way back to The Mall.
Other than take my turns on the front the last big job I do is to take TTM to the front of the next bunch we catch. We’re going over Putney bridge and TTM wants to be in front as we take the sharp right off it. Up the inside of the bunch and CCL are planted firmly on the front of the bunch.
We’re now on the run in to the finish. The next 10 minutes or so will be flat and pretty straight. The bunch is pretty big but me and TTM stay near the front of it. My last move is to hit the front as we pass Parliament. I’m aiming to keep the pace high and give TTM and wheel to follow into the sprint. The rider behind me decides to let my wheel go and so now I’m off the front of a galloping bunch heading for the sprint. This is a move that Sonny Colbrelli will try in the pro race, later this evening. It’s a move that not even my tactical naivety would encourage, and one I’ve only made by mistake.
Onto the mall and TTM sprints from the group, I half sprint at the back of it. My official time is 4 hours 9 minutes and something, but my garmin ignores the time spent stopped and changing a puncture. It says 4 hours 2 minutes and something. It’s not quite the sub 4 hour time I wanted but it’s only 4 minutes off the winners’ time.
There are still riders making their way around the course as I’m pulling into Manchester Piccadilly Station on my way home. My fellow passengers have done a great job of ignoring all the weird movements I’ve been making as I’m hit by killer cramps in my legs. Maybe there is hope for society after all.