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Monday, 8 October 2018

Ride London 100: It was a Bit Damp, Mum

As you know, I'm a REALLY organised person. *cough* Ok. I'm the sort of person who basically has the vaguest idea of when my next event is and I also tend to have a bit of a woolly idea of what day of the week I'm on. I would blame shift work but actually I've always been like this.

Earlier in the year, I'd been ecstatic to find out I had finally got into Ride London 100 after years of being unlucky in the ballot. And then I was also ecstatic about the fact I got to run and party in Manchester with my ASICS buddies. On the same weekend. In Manchester. And Ride London was in … well … London.

That's do-able right? A Friday and Saturday of fun with my run and tri buddies, shovel some dinner down in the evening, leave Manchester at 9pm and then drive 4 hours down to London to pick up my friend Becca at 03.00am. With 2 hours for snacks en route. And plenty of time to be in my start pen for 04:40am.

Easy, right? It would be like The Blues Brothers but with more petrol and less sunglasses and police chases.

Well it should have been easy. Except that Highways England thought that roads that people could actually drive down were boring and thoughtfully closed the M1. And just to mix it up, they then closed the diverted road. 

My panic-reaction to this was to drive in circles for 2 hours trying to work out where the hell I was. This didn't help but neither did the sat nav helpfully telling me to make a U-turn at EVERY available opportunity until I was ready to launch it at the next Highways England worker I saw. Which was none. They appeared to have closed the road, coned it off and then buggered off for 4 hours for a second breakfast. Or maybe they'd all been knocked out by sat navs launched by stressed and dizzy drivers and were lying down unconscious somewhere under the traffic cones. Who knew. 

I drove in loops getting steadily more sweary and worked up. You could tell how many loops I'd done by the volume and obscenity scale of the swearing. For anyone standing at the side of the road as I went past it must have been a little like a gerbil with tourettes in a very large sideways wheel. Doppler swearing. 

I made it to central London 6 hours after I'd left Manchester, hyped up on energy drinks and coffee and with a croaky voice thanks to 'chatting' to the sat nav all the way. I promptly got lost in a construction site and was completely unable to make it to the arranged pick up point to get Becca meaning she had an impromptu mile ride at 3am through London. Sorry, Becca. 



After circling the O2 car parks (spot a theme yet?) Becca and I eventually found our parking spot, retrieved our bikes and even managed to talk our way into the private car park attendant's toilet to dispose of approximately 8 gallons of coffee and energy drink. 

To get to the start point of Ride London 100, we had to take our bikes across the river Thames on the Emirates Skyline which is a cable car system which links Greenwich peninsular to the Royal Victoria dock. I was looking forward to this as I'd never been on the Emirates Skyline and I was excited to get a new view of London … what I DIDN'T know was that the cable car kept moving! As a result, we had to get ourselves and two bikes into a tiny cable car before we ran out of floor space. It was like trying to get some really expensive shopping onto the conveyer belt before you and it fell to a horrible death. However, all the caffeine may have made this seem a little more dramatic than it actually was. 

But once on the cable car, with the bikes stacked, we could relax and enjoy the journey. High above London with the city lights glittering at 4am on a dark morning really made it feel special and a really good way to start the adventure of my first 100 mile ride!

As we arrived at the other side, we managed to get the bikes off the cable car without dropping either or falling to a gruesome death and we carried them down the stairs. A few more cyclists joined us as the cable cars started arriving and we all set off towards the Queen Elizabeth Stadium. More and more cyclists joined us from different directions, their red taillights twinkling in the early morning gloom. We took a couple of wrong turns when the signs to the start disappeared but got there after a bit of discussion and a turn down an alley took us along a dark tarmac path which was lit with lights along the side at ground level like a fairy trail. 

Becca and I were on different starts so we parted with a 'goodbye' and a 'good luck!' as we turned in different directions. 

There was the option to drop a kit bag off in lorries similar to those used by the London Marathon and you could tell that the organisers were the same as the whole process was slick and fast. 

Setting off towards my start with my pockets full of snacks but needing a wee, I spotted a tall man on his own making for the portaloos. I stopped him and said “I’ll look after your bike if you’ll look after mine” and the deal was struck. It felt safer than leaving the bike by the loos (although plenty of people were!) and the tall chap wouldn't have wanted a bike fitted for a short girl so it seemed a good plan. I later heard that someone’s bike had disappeared from outside these toilets. I don't know whether someone had done a swap when they spotted a better bike or had just wandered up in bike kit and picked up one they liked the look off. There didn't appear to be any security at the start so anyone wearing lycra could have come along and picked up a bike without looking out of place. If you're doing the event on your own, it's worth bringing a lock – even a cheap one to stop opportunist thieves. 



The weather forecast which had been emailed out from Ride London had predicted a temperature of 23*c but had warned of hydrating properly in temperatures up to 30*c. After the hot summer we'd had it wouldn't have been surprising to have such high temps but I brought a rain jacket with me as an afterthought. It had been unused for the entire summer but it would be useful if we got a couple of spots of rain. 

As I was using this sportive as training for my 70.3 triathlons, I decided to wear my trisuit. I was aware that I wouldn't look like a proper cyclist *gasp* but I 'd decided to wear what I'd wear for my races. I might get shunned at the cake stops - I mean aid stations *cough* - but I wouldn’t know anyone so even if they went all elitist and 'Velominati Rules' on me I wouldn’t see them again. Unless they overtook me. In which case I'd deserve it.

I was in my Blue area and wave E start pen for about 04:45 as there was an allocated 'load' time of 04:40 – 05:20. Even so I was miles back from the start and everyone from every wave and every pen seemed to be mixed together. The pen and wave areas seemed to be guidelines rather than rules. 

It was also clear that there was a distinct lack of females in my wave – I was surrounded by white, middle-aged men in lycra. I was already wearing the wrong kit. Maybe I was also in the wrong pen. I appeared to have wandered into the MAMIL zone.

It's lucky I don't scare easily as if the smell of Deep Heat, over-tight lycra and expensive bikes was anything to go by I was in the equivalent of the middle aged Tour de France. Yes. I'm including myself in that. According to The Guardian, Ride London 100 2017 was about an 80%-20% male-to-female split but I was struggling to see any other females at all. Maybe we were just hard to spot among the other shaved legs and bright kit.

We were in the pen for over 75 minutes. However, people were reasonably friendly. I took a couple of photos for people and even lent my mobile to someone who had left his wallet and phone at the office and needed someone to pick them up. There was a lot of hanging around so it seemed a shame not to have a chat while we stuck doing it. And while they couldn't get away. 



After inching forward about 6 inches at a time, we finally reached the staggered start and the gantry which arched over the road. Our adrenaline rising to the clock counting down and the sounds of Queen ringing in our ears, with a spin of the pedals we were off. 

How can I describe the first 10 miles? It was group riding at its best, the bikes weaving like an intricate dance. I was lucky enough to be in a group with people who appeared to be reasonably experienced riders so the level of bike handling was fairly decent. There was a lot of movement of bikes and people but most people appeared to be used to group riding apart from a couple who were freewheeling. (No fucking freewheeling up front!) Brilliant high speed, great fun and the closest I've come to riding in a proper peloton. 

That being said, there were a couple of accidents that I saw. The roads were closed and cyclists were using all of the road … which was fine until there was a raised concrete islands separating the lanes. A couple of cyclists came a cropper hitting these. I also saw a cyclist hit another rear wheel of another cyclist and lose control, ending in a horrible crash of metal. With 25,000 cyclists, there were bound to be some accidents especially with high adrenaline and the thrill of some great roads and high-speed group riding. 

After being used to riding in Warwickshire, dodging potholes and avoiding drain covers and cracks in the road, I couldn't believe how smooth the London and Surrey road surfaces were. I still had to keep a keen eye out for unexpected moves by the cyclists around me, but it made cycling less stressful and meant I could have a look at the scenery instead of expecting to drop into a crater the size of a Ford Anglia the moment I looked away. 

Rain had been suggested by the morning forecast – which I sincerely had hoped was wrong - but it had started spitting when I was in the start pen so I had put my rain jacket on. The jacket promptly came off at mile 10 as I overheated but it was back on at mile 25 when the heavens opened and what appeared to half of the Thames poured from the lowered clouds.

Photo from Ride London twitter ... of me!!

The rain really started in earnest and the roads were under a seething and bubbling tide of water. Drafting was no longer possible due to the spray from the wheels in front and the fun of the peloton and thrill of following faster wheels was ended. Even the smoothly fitted drain covers became hazards, especially on corners because of the risk of sliding on them. Bends had to be anticipated tin order to brake accordingly which wasn't always easy in the bends and winds of the Surrey Hills and had to be taken wide. Metal structures at corners were padded with plastic cushions to limit injury but I still didn’t want to hit a lamp post at speed. I like having teeth and wanted to keep them in my head.

Having heard that the route was fast and mainly flat, I had intended to aim for a 20mph average speed, however the high winds, driving rain and amount of surface water meant that I had to change my plan. Corners had to be taken very slowly as the conditions wouldn't forgive any mistakes today. Better to ride a slow 100 miles than do a fast 10 miles and slide across the road on my face.

I genuinely think I’ve been drier swimming in a lake. After an hour on the bike, I was that sodden, drenched wetness where water drips off the end of your nose and your fingers are pruned. The rain was even in my snack bag and bike shoes. Every time I pedalled, a mini wave in my shoes sloshed. The rain was relentless and constant and worst of all, it just didn’t let up. Large puddles hid hazards on the road surface and new rivers ran across the road and and washed debris and sticks into the path of the cyclists. It was a new sport: when mountain biking met open water swimming. 

I was a little disappointed not to see any deer in Richmond Park but they had possibly been washed downriver and were now prowling around Kingston. The first hills on the route were in this park although it was undulating rather than steep. I also had a quick snack stop as due to the early start time I hadn’t had breakfast. I'm not someone who 'forgets' to eat (who even ARE those people??) so I scoffed a Cliff Bar, had a chat to the marshals and headed back onto the river … I mean road. 



At around Hampton Court Green, a lady cycling near me told me that my behind saddle bag was hanging off my bike. This bag is the bane of my cycling life. It's a great size, it tucks in well behind the saddle, stores everything crucial … and then randomly falls off the bike at awkward moments. I'd safety-pinned it on so had thought that it would be secure but it had obviously decided that today was the day to hang sideways off the saddle like a drunk hanging off a lamp post.

Luckily everything was saved before I dropped a cycling breadcrumb trail of kit and I got chatting to the lady who had told me, who introduced herself as Melanie from Surrey. She had ridden the 100 previously but not in such dreadful weather. As we chatted everything sport, it came to light that her friend had recently joined my triathlon club after moving from South England to the Midlands. It's a small world!

The rain wasn't easing up and I made the decision at about mile 35 to ditch my cycling glasses. I hate not wearing glasses on the bike as I'm always worried I'll end up with a bee in the eyeball, but it was a choice between not being able to see anything and likely hitting a tree or being able to see and chancing bug-ball. 

Every time I moved my feet, water sloshed in my shoes and when I took my neoprene gloves off at an aid station the gloves weighed about 5kg each. I'd forgotten about the absorbent properties of neoprene … NOT the best choice for a wet day! At least should I miss a water station, I'd be able to rehydrate using my hands. Actually, I'd probably be able to irrigate my garden in hot weather using the water in just one glove. It was utterly ridiculous.

I got to the 40 mile mark just past Pyrford Village. Not even halfway. I was wet, cold and miserable. I was cycling in appalling conditions and I had a half iron distance race next weekend which I didn't want to ruin by getting too cold today.

Decision time. Would I have more to lose or to gain by completing it? It was a tough one. I was miserable and wet but I would be disappointed if I didn't complete it. My legs felt good, nothing hurt or ached. I currently wasn’t shivering but more importantly there didn’t seem to be any checkpoints nearby offering a nice dry lift home. And waiting around would probably make me colder than carrying on cycling. Decision made. Crack on, Booker. Besides, Melanie was good company and having a cycling buddy makes the miles go quicker. 

I’d been dreading the hills on this course but friends had made them sound bigger than they actually were. If you listen to the descriptions, they sound positively monstrous and snow covered and towering and with the requirement for crampons, ropes and St Bernards with brandy flasks to gain the top. 

But to be honest, I didn’t realise Newlands Corner WAS Newlands Corner until I was near the top and Melanie told me what it was called. I always get a bit nervous when a hill has a name but it wasn't horrific and by the time I realised it was over. We had a quick pit stop at the damp aid station at the top, ironically to fill our water bottles and we were good to go. 

The big hills all come fairly quickly after the first one and Leith Hill was the next. I'd HEARD about this one. Afterwards I found out it's about 1.5 miles long and although it averages only about 6%, it gets worse as it goes on and hits well over 10% before the top. When I finally got there I would be at the highest point in Surrey.

However, I didn't know how long the hill was before I started it. I was chatting to the cyclists around me heading up Leith Hill. I struggle with not knowing a hill. If you've got an end point to aim for, it's a LOT easier. 

Basically the conversation went like this:
Is that chimney the top?”
No. It's a bit further yet.”
Ok. [silence briefly]. Is that tree the top?”
No. A bit more.”
Ok. [thoughtful silence]. What about THAT tree?”
NO!”
What about-”
SHUT UP AND KEEP PEDALLING!'

It was the hill that kept on giving. More hill. It kept on giving me more hill. I kept thinking I was near the top and then I'd look up and there would be ANOTHER climb stretching up above me. It was like an Everest to my little legs. I was expecting a sherpa any moment. 

Box Hill was pretty and winding. It had been a hill climb during the Olympics and as a result, it had been resurfaced so was smooth and lovely to ride. There were graphics sprayed on the road for the National Trust and trying to read the text as I rolled over it kept me entertained and kept my mind off my legs. It was a bit like climbing Edge Hill which is a local climb near me but Box Hill isn’t as steep. And it’s prettier! It zig zags like an Alpine road and it's a treat to ride it. It's not too steep, it just keeps going and the view is amazing!

Some people were walking the hills. But they were just hills. They weren't monstrous, mountainous, they weren't vertical and they weren't that long despite the horror stories I'd been told. 

However, the descents were another issue. The wet didn't affect the climbs too much but the water on the road and the debris washed into the roads by the constantly moving water made the descents treacherous and dangerous. I usually love descending and reaching speeds over 40mph but on this day, I was on my brakes almost constantly and my hands were cramping from holding them on. It was such a shame. In nice weather, it would have been glorious to fly down the hills but in the wet with brakes half-functioning and steep corners there was no option but to crawl. It was gutting. 

Descending a hill at mile 73, I suddenly started feeling bumps through my front wheel and as I pulled the bike to a stop at the side of the road, I could hear the hissing as the air rushed out of my front tyre. Checking the tyre, there was a deep cut in it. It was a fairly quick tyre change - I knew that turbo tyre changes and all that swearing and crying would come in handy one day - but we couldn't get enough pressure into the tube. The single c02 canister I had failed but even Melanie's trusty hand pump couldn’t get the pressure high enough to ride a further 27 miles safely on it. 

No-one stopped to assist us but I spotted a yellow hi-viz vest up the road, so I popped over to see whether the wearer was a marshal for the event. The chap in the vest didn’t appear to be sure whether he actually WAS a marshal or not answering my question of whether he was with “Yes. No. Kind of.” Alrighty then.

Not trusting him with a hand pump (or even a sharp pencil) I asked him where the nearest aid station was. Apparently it was 'Near.' Ok. Useful.

How far was 'near' I enquired. He was completely unable to elaborate. Half a mile? 2 miles? 10 miles? I tried to prompt a response but he was about as sure about this as he was about being a marshal and was completely unable to even guess. Apparently it was near a hill. Oh. Ok. 

Deciding we'd have to go with it. We slowly trundled up the road with a half inflated tyre. Luckily the hub was about half a mile away and the helpful marshals quickly got some pressure into the tube in with a track pump and were back in the business of cycling a river!

I wouldn't say the sun came out, but the rain seemed to ease off slightly and the last few rolling miles were pleasant. At around 80 miles, we were joined by the riders doing the 46 mile route. It was surprising and we hadn't realised it, but we had been spoiled with the level of cycling of the 100 riders as some of the handling skills of the cyclists doing the 46 miles route were truly appalling and the event became immediately more dangerous.

I guess that it was that the 46 appealed to people ho were less experienced on their bikes but there were some truly appalling manoeuvres including a woman who stopped her bike in the middle of the road without warning and started pulling to the edge presenting the side of the her bike to all of the oncoming riders. Melanie narrowly missed hitting her as the woman gave no warning of her intention to stop at all. Another problem with this kind of behaviour in a busy sportive was that as soon as one cyclist went down, the 3 or 4 cyclists immediately behind would be unable to stop in time and would also go down. There simply wasn't the space to leave 25m between the bike in front in case they did something silly.

After 90 miles, we came up to Wimbledon Hill. The end wasn't far away and the roads had been fast and flat again – a relief after the Surrey Hills but this was a sneaky little hill about half a mile long. 

Back on the level and smooth roads in London, we put our heads down. The roads were busier now and there was a nasty headwind. We were tired, slightly damp and covered in mud from the tyre change but so close to the finish! After the lanes and hills, It was a strange but lovely contrast to cycle around Trafalgar Square and the towering buildings, especially without the roar and danger of the traffic. 



The final stretch was The Mall and what a place to finish your first 100 mile ride! I could see the finish arch from a long way away and decided to give it some welly. I really gave it what I felt was a sprint finish. A vision blacking, oxygen depriving, eyeballs out sprint. 

… Well that was how it felt. When I looked at my speed afterwards, I gave it a slipper. Not a welly, a slipper. One of those granny ones. It was slow. REALLY slow.

And then I passed under the finish arch and that was that. My first hundre- … ninety-eight point three mile bike ride.

Dammit!






2 comments:

  1. This should be in a magazine Sarah, great read but please don't tell me you're going for a desert ride next time .....x

    ReplyDelete