If you were to tell me last Sunday saw 16,500 cyclists enjoying 100 miles of closed roads stretching from the Olympic Park in Stratford, East London, weaving through the city and out west into Surrey, I’d think you were crazy. But this was certainly no tall story.
The Prudential RideLondon Festival of Cycling hit the capital last weekend seeing more than 65,000 cycling enthusiasts enjoy everything about the bike. A free-cycle through the city soaking in the sites, a Bike Show and the Women’s Elite Crit Race on the Saturday. And on Sunday, the RideLondon 100 followed by the Men’s Pro Race, both taking in a circuit similar to that of the Olympics.
Back in April when I found out I’d won a place to ride with #TeamSkoda, one of the key sponsors of the event, I was not only excited to be part of the UK’s largest celebration of the bike, but pretty nervous too. I’d not long moved back from Amsterdam with the goal of becoming a grimpeuse (climber), or at least a better one than I was. RideLondon was the perfect event to give me the motivational kick to get my slow-twitch muscles working and build the stamina to complete my longest ride yet.
I’d struggled at the beginning of the year to feel the love for the bike. Winter seemed to drag on and as an asthmatic; cold, damp conditions are the worst! I was struggling to enjoy club rides, knowing everyone else had to wait for me at the top of every hill. I decided the only way to deal with this was focus.
I invested in some turbo-training DVDs and started to get into the routine of coming home to a warm, dark house, shutting myself away in the attic for 90 mins. I was also attending weekly track training sessions – riding a fixed gear with intensive interval training was helping to build additional muscle and fitness. By the time I got back out on the road at the Amstel Gold Race in April, I could already see the difference in my power, completing the 125km route (including all the climbs) in just over 5 hours and with energy left over to party that evening. My longest ride yet.
Sussing out the Surrey Hills with Ben
Come the beginning of May, I was ready to head off to the Alps. Cycling for me has always been about social riding; particularly in windy Amsterdam. But for once I was on my own. By tackling the cols alone, I really got to know not only my physical capability, but my inner chimp. I not only came back a different cyclist, but ready to better my performance. I was finally in love with the bike again.
With lighter evenings kicking in, I was now back on the bike 3 – 4 times a week – mixing it up with long weekend rides and some challenging Cat 3 & 4 climbs in the Chilterns, track-training on a Thursday, and some fast, short interval based rides mid week.
Another week in the Alps at the end of June, and I could really see the difference. This time I wasn’t alone. But I not only felt comfortable, I knew how to pace myself and not succumb to the pressure of those that were faster around me. I came back broken, having never cycled or climbed so much in one week before, but I now knew I was capable of more.
Although I’d aimed to become a grimpeuse by the end of the 2013 season, I can happily say I’d already beaten my goal, if not bettered it. Of course, I still have plenty to improve on, but compare me to the cyclist of last year, and you wouldn’t recognise me. I don’t recognise me!
The week before RideLondon I was struck down with a chest infection and fever; my lungs collapsing on me and a course of antibiotics prescribed. My worst nightmare and one I seem to live every time I have a big cycle event coming up. Feeling particularly rubbish, all of my enthusiasm had washed out the window, more a fear that I wouldn’t be able to start, let alone complete the full 100 miles comfortably. It was only 2 days before “race day” that I decided I would start and see how I got on. And aren’t I glad I did!
My alarm rung loud at 5am on Sunday morning. I stumbled out of bed into the lycra I’d already laid out the night before, and clambered into the already loaded car trying to eat some form of breakfast – in this instance a banana, 2 boiled eggs prepared the night before and a cup of tea. Entering London on eearily empty roads, I hadn’t really anticipated the eery empty roads I would soon by cycling on.
Arriving at the Olympic park, I was shocked at the sheer number of cyclists in their pens, like patient cattle waiting for the farmer to open the gate. There were hundreds, if not thousands, and I was only seeing an 8th, maybe even a 9th of the total number of cyclists that would pass through the start line that day.
Riding for Skoda, we were welcomed into the VIP tent, brekkie thrown in. Still half asleep, I only batted half an eyelid at Laura Trott and Dani King of Wiggle-Honda Pro team sat at the table tucking into their bacon rolls.
Taking advantage of the open roads
After a quick discussion with the rest of Team Skoda about our target times, the 6 of us were directed into our wave ready to start at a very prompt 7.50am, along with other Skoda cyclists and the girls from Matrix Fitness RA.
The start was strange. Not only were we swarmed by thousands of other cyclists, all with the same intention, but we were on completely closed roads, ignoring traffic lights and riding straight through junctions. For the first 5 – 10km, the majority were keeping to the left of the road, obviously feeling out of their comfort zone encroaching ‘the other side’. Soon losing the other Team Skoda members, I stuck with the Matrix Fitness girls, Hannah Walker, Jessie Walker and Emma Grant, as we weaved our way through the cyclists, out of the city and into the countryside of Surrey.
The 4 of us had concerns that the ‘swarm’ would continue into the hills, making it difficult to complete the course in a time of our choosing. But come Newlands Corner (not long after a little crash I had as a result of a stopping peloton on a narrowing road), the masses had started to thin.
Apart from ‘lethal’ Leith Hill, the last 25km had to be the toughest. I’d lost the girls following a medic stop at 50 miles and the motivating cheers of ‘you need to beat Boris, he’s ahead of you‘ were a distant memory. Everything was hurting, I couldn’t find a wheel I felt comfortable to sit on, and I just wanted to finish. Pulling onto the Mall, the crowds roaring with support, I was able to use the last of what energy I had to pick up my speed and cross the line with a smile on my face.
6 hours and 24 minutes after starting (including the 30 minute medic stop to clean my wounds), I had finished, lungs in tact! I was particularly happy to roll up to the second Skoda tent of the day, park my bike and enjoy indulging in some proper food, a shower and the Men’s Pro Race.
If you fancy giving RideLondon 2014 a go, the ballot opens this Monday, 12th August. Good luck!
A massive thank you has to be passed on to the following people and companies:
Skoda & Cycling Plus for providing me the opportunity to take part in a fantastic event, with a big part of that thank you to Jonathan Durling for the support throughout the past few months, and the grandstand tickets!
Matrix Fitness Racing Academy, Helen and Stef Wyman for all of their support at Skoda training events, with particular mention to Hannah, Jessie and Emma for their support on the day.
Team Skoda – without the banter, training rides and comparison of notes over the past few months, the event wouldn’t have been the same without them. Well done all!
Boris Johnson, Prudential, the event marshals and St Johns Ambulance for laying on a fantastic event normally unimaginable for London and very much reminiscent of the Netherlands.
The spectators – a lot more than I was expecting – but awesome, every one of them!
And of course, my wonderful friends and family for all their support and for putting up with my moaning!