It's 6am on Sunday, 31 July 2016 and as I stand in Yellow start pen B amongst a sea of rather serious-looking fellow cyclists, I find myself reflecting on how on earth I actually discover myself here in the first place rather than still in bed...
As the title suggests, I am actually an almost total novice when it comes to serious road cycling. Having spent almost all of my 20s and 30s sitting on my backside doing an office job, I realised that I needed to be more active. The light bulb moment came in 2009 when a couple of days relaxed cycling on holiday led to the purchase of my first adult bike: a Brompton. This led to one of the crazier things I have done (London to Brighton on said Brompton), which in turn led to a cycle touring holiday through Wales on hired bikes and then the purchase of a rather, ahem, robust hybrid and the start in 2013 of cycle commuting.
2015 was when things started getting vaguely serious after a couple of years of making the 19 mile round trip from Wimbledon to Brentford three or four times a week. This was the purchase of something approaching a road bike. I say approaching because it still had flat bars albeit with a full carbon frame, 25mm wide tyres and reasonably swanky Shimano 105 group set.
After taking part in an 60 mile open road sportive that summer, my wife became interested in doing the Prudential RideLondon-Surrey 100. I'd always fancied a bit of a challenge like that so to her suggestion of entering the ballot, I said why not. Alas whilst my wife got lucky I did not, but when Joe and Oisin suggested I could get a place in return for writing all about it, I thought it was an offer to good to miss.
Of course once I signed up, I then began to worry about training. The final instructions brochure sent by the event organisers does contain a lot of helpful information on training plans as well as quite a bit on nutrition (more on that shortly). Transparently, I thought, I'm doing around 60 miles a week commuting, I can get out on some longer and longer rides at the weekend, that should do the trick? Some readers will be horrified to learn that this was indeed the approach I took.
In terms of what to pack on the day, a lot of it was common sense: sunglasses, phone, spare inner tube, helmet, all that stuff. Another question entirely was what food to bring. Sports nutrition is a discipline in its own right and one I never quite got round to understanding, some would say bizarrely for a lawyer working for a pharmaceutical company. The preparation, drink additives, the gels, recovery supplements, the recommended carbohydrate intake each hour, well, I never quite got round to sussing all of this out. I therefore decided to bring with me a family size pack of nut bars then pick up what I fancied over the course of the day. What could go wrong?
My game plan for the day, like my training, was somewhat basic and unscientific: make it round the course without incident. Actually I had put some thought into it since you are up against the clock whether you like it or not, needing to make it to certain points around the course by certain times or face diversion or even getting swept up which even I realised meant true ignominy. You basically have a maximum of eight hours or so to make it round, which translates to an average speed of 12-13mph. So there was my goal: maintain that sort of pace on the flat, take advantage of the descents and, well, steadily grind up the climbs.
I had done Newlands Corner, Leith Hill and Box Hill several times in the last couple of years so I knew what I was letting myself in for and more importantly knew I could get to the top without stopping or collapsing. I found that getting my head down, letting my mind go blank and focusing on breathing then lo and behold there was the top was my best approach so why change the winning formula. It remained to be seen how this would all pan out.
My wife and I decided to spend the night before in a hotel at Canary Wharf which is three or four miles from the start. We actually live in South West London but decided that saving 12 miles of pedalling before even getting over the start line was worth it. The only downside of Canary Wharf was navigating your way out of it; I might have condemned myself to spending the day doing circuits of Canada Square had I not encountered other Ride Londoners on the way. The journey to the Olympic Park was an experience in itself with rush hour levels of cycle and indeed other traffic.
The first thing that strikes you about the event is quite how well organised it is. The signage into the starting pens and the marshalling at the start was excellent. There were also plenty of loos in the pens although I slightly regretted not taking advantage of them thereby resulting in non-ideal early stop in Pall Mall. What impressed me most was that my start time was 06:42 and I literally did start moving at 06:42 to the second. Wow!
Once out of the park, the route takes you down the Blackwall Tunnel Approach. It is a bizarre feeling cycling the wrong way down what is effectively a motorway. I have to say several of my fellow riders decided to treat it as such and went off at a real lick. I decided to stick to my game plan and not overdo things even though it resulted in me being overtaken with depressing regularity. The route then takes you through the Docklands (back past Canary Wharf) and Limehouse Link before reaching the City near the Tower of London. The Limehouse Link was the first surprise, not only for me but also for my Garmin which promptly lost half a mile of my journey when it lost GPS signal.
We then proceeded along the Embankment, up Northumberland Avenue, through Trafalgar Square, along Pall Mall, up St James' St., down Piccadilly to my second tunnel experience: the Hyde Park Corner underpass. Bizarrely I have always wanted to do that so that's another experience ticked off the list!
After that we followed the A4 out to Chiswick before heading over Chiswick Bridge, through Sheen and into Richmond Park. It also gave me my first experience of cycling part of my daily commute on a closed road. It makes you realise how much faster you can go when you are not trying to dodge cars the whole time!
From Richmond Park you then head through Kingston and out to Hampton Court which is the venue for the first major food and drink station. I was pretty impressed by the food stations: there seemed to be a decent selection of sports nutrition products which I ignored on this occasion as well as things like cakes and bananas of which I took full advantage. The loos were plentiful as was the medical and mechanical assistance. My only minor niggle about the majority of these pit stops was the lack of traffic control at the entrances and exits. Why don't they have a coned-off area which diverts people into the food station rather than having a less-than-obvious entrance on the right hand side which can only be accessed by trying to weave through the still-pumped-up peloton whizzing past you?
From there followed my least favourite part of the route: the tedious grind out to the countryside through Walton-on-Thames and Weybridge then over the M25 towards Pyrford and onwards to Newlands Corner. Again, being a closed road event made this section so much more enjoyable.
On the descent from Pyrford towards Ripley, I saw the first of several casualties during the day, all of which seemed to be on steep, narrow, winding parts of hills. I couldn't help thinking that the perfect cycling weather we had today did cause some riders to throw caution to the delightful breeze blowing across the Surrey Hills. I later saw men down on the Leith Hill descent and then on the A25 into Dorking. In fairness, these accidents could have had nothing to do with speed, but I really thought some unnecessary risks were being taken.
(As an aside, my wife's start group was two hours after mine and I subsequently learnt from her that two other accidents had resulted in an emergency diversion that actually avoided much of the Surrey Hills. So I was fortunate to get round the whole course unhindered.)
Newlands Corner is the first and shortest of the three Big Climbs on the ride. Normally the road is monstrously busy with cars and intentionally and anti-socially noisy motorbikes which has come to make me dread Newlands Corner. Could I go so far as to say that I enjoyed it? I actually didn't have to deploy my climbing strategy mentioned earlier which was just as well because you do need to be careful with people overtaking and undertaking, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the climb does get easier with practice.
The second big food station was at the top and again I found it well stocked contrary to what I had been told to expect. Another nut bar and another banana and I was all set. The sun by this stage was fully out and the view to the south was definitely worth enjoying for a few minutes' rest.
There is then a glorious descent down the A25 towards Shere and Gomshall which does provide a fabulous rest after the first climb. It also allows you to get prepared for the Leith Hill experience. The thing about Leith Hill is that it is only part of a long, thin loop off the A25 between Abinger Hammer and Dorking. To get to the bottom of Leith Hill, you need to first need to ride south for five or six miles up a non-trivial incline along a narrow, bumpy country lane. It is very much the warm-up act to knock you around a bit before the main event. Once it spits you out at the bottom of the loop, it's time for the second Big Climb.
The problem with Leith Hill is that the gradient varies continuously, the road winds and it's impossible to see more than a 100 yards up the road. Added to that the narrowness and condition of the road and you've got quite a challenge. Even more so than Newlands Corner, I was pre-occupied with overtaking people walking, overtaking the odd slower person (yes, to my surprise, there were such people!) and not annoying those overtaking me too much. I resorted to the smaller gear at the front and biggest at the back within about two minutes of starting. Doh! I had resolved to keep one in reserve. However it made getting out of bottom gear quite a way before the top that much more satisfying. In fact by the time I got to the top, I was quite happy to continue and only when I got back to the A25 did I stop for another nut bar.
The A25 is largely an enjoyable downhill into Dorking where I experienced the first decent crowd of the event. It is true that having people cheering and egging you on, even if you are going at a fairly pedestrian rate, does make a huge difference to your motivation. Box Hill was where I started to flag a bit and although Box Hill is lovely and smooth, open and with a pretty constant gradient, I didn't enjoy it as much as the previous two. In fact I found myself stopping pedalling every few hundred yards to give my aching rear end a break!
Another nut bar at the top didn't quite hit the spot and I found myself craving a gel all the way from the top of Box Hill via Headley Common, Leatherhead and Oxshott to Sandown Park where I finally cracked and gave one a try. To be honest, this section of the ride was a bit of a blur. I was beginning to feel the length of the ride and so my recollection of the detail is confined to a wonderful descent into Leatherhead followed by the warmth of the reception in Oxshott; gosh, those people can cheer!
I've got to say, the gel was up there with an espresso martini as a serious pick-me-up. I felt I was flying along the route from Esher past the river into Kingston and then over the hill through Raynes Park into Wimbledon (my home turf where I ensured I reciprocated the crowd's generous cheering). At this stage I was beginning to marvel at the average speed showing on my Garmin: still in excess of 15mph, which was considerably more than the 12mph I had targeted. Basically I found that picking a comfortable pace above 12mph was the thing to do. Wimbledon Hill (which is another part of my commute) is unsurprisingly a lot easier without panniers containing laptop and clothes.
Another gel, this time with caffeine in Wimbledon Village and I was flying, resulting in an impromptu change of plan to ensure that I finished with an average speed of greater than 15mph. Following New Kings Road then Millbank brought us to Parliament Square with a fabulous run up Whitehall and then down the Mall to bring us to the finish line a fraction under seven hours after leaving the Olympic Park. What a sense of achievement! Obligatory Buck House selfie was followed by kit bag pick up.
I was impressed again by how slick the post-event set up was: you simply proceeded up Constitution Hill collecting your medal, goodie bag and kit bag and there you were at Hyde Park Corner, ready to head home. Mission accomplished: event completed without incident! Having said that, the highlight had to be finding out that I managed Leith Hill in almost two minutes less than my last attempt, and that after 55 miles pedalling. Nice.
So would I recommend the Prudential RideLondon-Surrey 100 as an event? Without question. The feeling of both riding through Central London on closed roads as well as being able to do some of the best climbs in Surrey without any cars or motorbikes to bother you makes the whole day worthwhile. For a closed-road sportive novice, doing 100 miles in a day feels like quite an achievement, dare I say up there with running a marathon? For a former fatboy, who two years ago had a BMI in excess of 30, it is approaching a miracle.
Do I think you can do 100 miles based on 60 miles a week commuting and the odd 40-50 mile weekend ride? To my pleasant surprise, the answer turned out to be yes. I did worry before the day that my cavalier attitude to sports nutrition and my less-than-structured training would be my undoing, but in fact I managed just fine. Perhaps if I wanted to improve my time for next year, I need to up my game; that'll be another story though.
Many thanks once again to Sportive.com and the RideLondon organisers for giving me the opportunity to try proper, grown-up cycling!