Following the yellow signs we were all fed onto Cycle Superhighway 2 to Stratford and the Olympic Park. Unfortunately so was all the other traffic, queued nose-to-tail because the adjacent A12 was closed for the Sportive riders. It was easy to spot the regular cycle commuters weaving their way through the traffic, while the leisure cyclists all looked a bit bewildered. What really surprised me was that they waited behind the cyclists advance stop lines as if they were still in their cars, leaving the bike box empty. Perhaps its time to bring back the old 'Public Information Films' to explain how to use these features.
Lucky Bagpuss waiting to start the challenge
At 7:00 we were off. Steady pace out of the Olympic Park and then onto the open road. I latched on to a couple of fast moving, big solid looking German blokes. Greipel lookalikes? Riding back across London on silent main roads through all the tunnels and overpasses that you normally avoid on a bike was a bit surreal. 'It's like being in a video game' said my new companion, in his best Schwarzenegger accent. In no time at all we were out through Kensington and heading towards Richmond Park, Mecca for London's cyclists.
I have to admit to holding some reservations about Sportives. The purist in me says that if you want to race bikes, get a license and do proper races. Somehow the idea of training and riding really hard in a sportive seems morally wrong! I know I have autistic tendencies and I never know in my own mind what to do faced with ambivalent situations. I love riding fast but riding at race speed is a different kettle of fish. It is usually a horrible feeling of grey illness and impending exhaustion, punctured occasionally by relief or euphoria. Why put yourself through all that when you don't have to? I settled for riding fast along the main roads and then sitting up to enjoy the views in the Surrey hills. The decision was pretty much taken out of my hands anyway when we reached the first climb to Newlands Corner and the fast boys and girls that I was with disappeared up the hill.
I was joined by a friendly bloke who I'd been chatting with at the start and we rode along for a while, taking in the scenery. I'm always put off riding anywhere near London because of the amount of traffic, even on the country lanes, but with closed roads you could really appreciate the pretty villages, rolling hills and ancient woodlands.
The gradient on Leith Hill was surprisingly brutal and I lost contact with my companion as we just had to ride it at our own pace. Thankfully it was all over quickly and we were soon off down the other side. I think it was here that we passed the aftermath of a nasty crash with around seven riders down. One lady appeared to have a broken collar bone. Sickeningly, the blood from a head injury was trickling across the road while the man involved was being held carefully still by one of the marshalls. It had only just happened and there were no medics there yet. This brought back memories of a hideous fatal crash that I witnessed about 10 years ago where I had the misfortune to see somebody bleeding to death from a head injury while we waited for an ambulance. I am forever haunted by the way her breathing went from normal, to laboured, to death rattle and by the thickness and stickiness of the blood as it dried. Quite out of the blue I found myself shuddering and tears rolling down my face in some sort of post-traumatic episode. I saw a few other shaken people sat head in hands at the side of the road. These times in life you just wish somebody would give you a hug, and you count your blessings! I don't know if this was the crash that ended up with air ambulance and route diversions for the later riders. Soon afterwards there were two other less serious crashes on other downhill sections. I really hope that all involved make a full recovery.
This illustrated my other 'problem' with sportives. We may all like to imagine that we are Peter Sagan, Ronan Bardet, Lizzie Armitstead or Mark Cavendish but the fact is that these are exceptional bike handlers in a field of the world's best experts, and they still crash pretty frequently. In a sportive the fast riders are often more like a bull in a china shop, assuming that slower riders know what they are doing, will ride predictably and in a straight line and will not stop suddenly. These are wrong assumptions. It is not a race or a club run and the majority of people taking part are simply not used to riding in a group and just want to enjoy the ride and get around the course. Finishing is an achievement for them. They can't be blamed for not observing 'your' personal race rules. As in real racing, the safety onus is on the person overtaking from behind to do so safely. It is absolutely terrifying to come down a fast descent with some nutter 6 inches from your back wheel and it's a completely unnecessary risk which even the pro cyclists rarely take, instead allowing each other enough space in case things go wrong. Rant over.
Onward to Box Hill. If God (or Carlsberg) had invented a hill for the bicycle, it is Box Hill. The gentle, even gradient is perfect for cycling, the tarmac is smooth, it has a few 'continental style' hairpins and stunning views that make you feel like you are in a Frank Patterson sketch. I can see why people from miles around would choose to head there.
The summit of Box Hill included a refuelling point. I took the chance to fill up on malt loaf and other snacks and sat down for a while to watch the spectacle of riders passing by. It was amazing to see all shapes, sizes, ages and genders passing by. Everybody smiling, relieved to get to the top, some clearly surprised and delighted by what they had achieved. It was quite tempting to spectate for longer. A man flashed by on an orange Brompton, overtaking 3 immaculately turned out club riders. Another bloke swished up to the top, one arm strapped carefully across his chest. Then you start looking at the jerseys, so many charities, so many people trying to do something for others while having a bit of fun. You know that these will be people who survived an illness themselves, who survived the death of a husband, a child, or they may be full time carers for the critically ill and injured, or helping those fleeing from war, famine or persecution. So many reasons why people choose to ride for charity. Whatever you think of the cycling politics of these big events, there is no doubt about the huge impact such rides must have for the income of the charity sector. In my own case, I was raising money for the Trigeminal Neuralgia Association, (http://www.tna.org.uk/) an organisation that provided me with valuable emotional support from fellow sufferers and practical information when it came to treatment options. I managed to raise a modest £180 (donate at http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/lordonabike) .
From Box Hill it is not quite downhill all the way to London but that's what it feels like. A train of riders came past on my right and I jumped on the back for a free ride pretty much all the way to the Mall. The crowds were lining the roads the whole way in, and there we were, zipping along at 25 mph, sweeping round the bends and waving at the children like some sort of rag-bag returning army. It was a side of London I'd never seen before, a massive 20 mile long street party with the riders taking centre stage. Normally pedalling through west London is anything but pleasurable. This must be what it's like to be in the Royal Family. The queen probably imagines that standing at the roadside waving flags is what ordinary people do all day.
The politics and intention behind the Ride London weekend is interesting to me. It was explained by TfL at a meeting I attended with British Cycling on the opening Friday as part of the Choose Cycling initiative (https://www.britishcycling.org.uk/campaigning). I spend a lot of my time working on strategies to boost cycling. Sportives and mass cycle rides are usually supported by councils as a way to attract visitors to come and spend money.
The Ride London weekend is different. Closing the roads of central London on Saturday is all about getting families who live in London to explore the city centre by bicycle. It's great to see people out and about with children, without the fear of getting run over. Most people can't even do this in the street where they live. The event gives them a little snippet of what cities can be like when the car is used appropriately and not to the detriment of everyone else, helping to build public political support for cycling infrastructure. 70% of daily traffic on Blackfriars Bridge is now cyclists, but only 2% of all trips in greater London are by bike. There is a long way to go towards mass cycling in most boroughs outside central London.
Lots of stuff going on at the Free Cycle festival
The Sportive is a legacy of the 2012 London Olympics. Entry is always oversubscribed with preference given to London addresses. It is a reward for the citizens to enable them to be inspired by the Olympians to try and take on a challenge themselves. Inspiration to participation. TfL had to spend money to organise the first year events when nobody knew whether they would be a success, but now the sponsors meet the full cost of the weekend, but it still of course relies on the political support of the areas through which it passes, whose residents are disrupted by the weekend of festivities and road closures. TfL do some follow-up monitoring and estimate that around 20,000 new cyclists are still cycling 4 months after being inspired to start by the Ride London weekend. That figure excludes existing cyclists who maybe do extra cycle trips to work and other places as part of their preparation for the 100 miles ride. The mens and womens professional races are seen as the vehicle to generate tourism revenue, showcasing the city and the Surrey countryside on international TV. Indeed, the commentator on Eurosport noted that one of the riders had booked a holiday in Britain after taking part in last year's Tour of Britain.
TfL and British Cycling officials show other councils around the new infrastructure as part of the weekend. Embankment now moves 18% more people per day than it did when there was no cycle track, so far from reducing capacity, the space taken from cars has enabled more movement.
Nearly at the finish. I'd been chatting to a fellow Bianchi owner on the way up Whitehall, where crowds lined the roads to cheer us. She was perfectly dressed top to toe in Bianchi team gear, even down to the celeste shoes. As we passed through Admiralty Arch onto the Mall after 5 hours on the road I didn't want it to be over. 'We'd better slow down and savour this moment'. 'No way, its a Strava segment!' she shouted as she sprinted off to the finish line. I still don't quite get the sportive mentality......
They think its all over, but the cycling revolution is just beginning.