A good, fast sportive is all about preparation. Miles through the winter = strength through the summer; regular riding through the hills during spring/summer hones the top end, while the odd longer ride throughout builds endurance.
Well, that's the theory. A winter wracked with sinus problems, various issues through the spring and early summer making for one or two rides a week rather than three to four, and a longest ride of the year of a mere 85 miles. Not the best preparation for a fast RideLondon targeting a good result for the club in the RideLondon Club Challenge.
On the plus side, a good sub four hour finish in 2016 along with a strong team gave us the opportunity to start this year's RideLondon in the first wave, Blue A at 5.44am. While the logistics don't sound all that appealing - up at 2.50am, an hour drive to park up in the City and a 5-mile ride to the start to meet at 4.45 - the reality is that without pro-level dedication and talent you can only ride as fast as those around you. The quickest riders go off in the first wave, so the early start is essential.
While RideLondon is not a race, one rider will cross the line first. There is also a semi-official 'race' within the event: the Club Challenge, where British Cycling affiliated clubs are invited to enter teams of four with the aggregate of their rider times going toward the result. So, not unlike a European Gran Fondo or the Tours of Cambridgeshire and Ayrshire, the front of the event is ridden much as an amateur race. The only event in the UK where amateurs can race over 100 miles on closed roads if I'm not mistaken. A not unattractive prospect to some!
Having arrived safely in the Blue A pen it was a case of waiting in the dreary, damp, cool of a not so perfect summer morning for the safety announcement and starter. In past years the ride has been set off by a celebrity, Martin Johnson and Mark Webber most recently; this year we were greeted by the message, "Today you will be set off by 'stand in' starter head of British Cycling..." I'm not sure many would have noticed the 'stand in' nature!
The event started promptly at 5.44am with a pace car leading riders down on to the A12. The promised weather clearance didn't materialise and the roads were particularly wet. Not such a bad thing in the event as riders were noticeably careful. Still, once out on to the A12 the pace rose and the peloton extended out, if not quite at the pace of 2016 in the dry.
A steady headwind helped to check the pace somewhat, so sitting in the peloton was quite comfortable with the option to move up and reposition in the group on London's wide roads quite easily. Positioning is key, because as much as starting in the fastest wave is important not losing those riders is equally important. Once away you won't see them again.
Also notable and new for 2017 were this year's 'Ride Captains', there to help set a good riding example. I saw three, made up of riders from the London Dynamo club. Did they improve the general standard of riding just by being there? It's hard to say; the standard was definitely better this year but that may have also been down to the weather.
In previous years a good number of individuals have jumped onto the first group from the side of the road as it went through London. This was notable by its absence; perhaps the wet weather kept interlopers in their beds with only a few being bothered to get up.
As the front group wound its way through the City 25mph showed on my Garmin where I'd have expected to see 27-8mph; a very good thing for one whose preparation wasn't as good as it might have been coming into the event. Particularly so tucked into the middle of a large group where the advantage of drafting is at its greatest.
The ride to Richmond was fairly uneventful; 'middle' for road furniture and left and right turns were routinely called, though nothing for pot holes or grates - more than one rider succumbed to a pinch flat.
Over the top of Sawyers Hill in Richmond Park there came a sustained injection of pace. With the exception of an odd individual or enthusiastic marshal it wasn't until Hampton Court that the first group on the road got a good cheer. Before 7am on a Sunday morning London is asleep and oblivious, but those manning the hub rushed over to voice their encouragement which was nice. The pace continued to remain honest and the main concern was avoiding deep puddles and staying off to the side of the rider in front rather than on the wheel so as to avoid the worst of the spray.
It's hard to say why but the lead group felt smaller than it might have heading over the M25 and out into Surrey, where the narrowing roads can cause dangerous compressions. My guess is rather than slowing in preparation the pace was maintained leading into the hills which strung the group out, meaning the narrow sections were easier for all to navigate. Still, it was important to position oneself toward the front in order not to be caught behind a split going up Newlands, the first hill, so some effort was required to come around the group where possible and take closer order.
On to the A246 and the mood suddenly changed; a murmur rose, get ready, the first of the tests ensues! Personally it was the moment of truth, my lack of preparation having been starkly revealed two weeks previously when I led a group through these same hills to see what lay in store. Then I'd fallen some 40 seconds short of my time up Newlands the previous year. What was worse, I felt I'd ridden it quite hard where during the event last time I'd not pushed on at all, just held my position and conserved as much energy as possible.
One rider pushed off the front of the group along the A246 and a team mate turned to me and commented, 'he's either really strong or really stupid!' I wondered which?!
The group rode pretty hard into Newlands which meant there was plenty of momentum to get started and rather than concentrate on what might be hurting it was more a case of thinking, okay, stay with these guys, don't allow yourself to fall back... Here some preparation did help; I knew on Newlands the steepest part is at the bottom. Knowing that you're through the toughest part does the mind the world of good and I was able to comfortably ride up, as it turned out faster than ever before. First test undertaken and passed.
No room for complacency over the top, the descent is very fast. I got the sense that there had been a split going up the hill and a quick glance back suggested that was the case. Too fast to take a proper look so head down. Talking later there was indeed a small split that a club mate managed to bridge with a few others; however, the first selection of the event had taken place. Hard to say how many were left but something between 60 and 100. The run through the Surrey villages of Shere, Gomshall and Abinger Hammer is very beautiful in a quintessential English kind of a way. Even at our pace in the damp it was possible to take this in.
Off the A25 the road rises gently to a ridge of the North Downs via Holmbury. At 2.5 miles with an average gradient of 2% this ordinarily is very easy: it becomes harder and harder the faster you go! Here the advantage of being swept along in a large group made a great difference. Despite averaging 21mph I'd go so far as to say it felt easy. Two weeks previously it did not feel easy at 18 mph. My only incident with others through the event occurred here, the rider in front of me cut across my line and would have taken my front wheel had I not reacted quickly to avoid. Much abuse regarding changing line came from behind, aimed at me, oh well!
The road down off the hill is a comfortable descent when you're on your own, but anything but at high speed, with wet roads and bodies all around. Concentration to the fore and all made it safely to the bottom and the lumpy lead in to Leith Hill.
Before I knew it we were on to the hardest hill on the route, Leith Hill and the early slope was taken at a fair pace, then the first of the steeper ramps came with the sound of crunching gears. For me again it was a matter of set your mind to staying with those around rather than anticipating what was to come. On that basis I knew even if I was dropped there would be some bodies to ride with. Much to my surprise the pace didn't seem to be particularly high and I comfortably held my own with the other riders, reforming the group on the descent before a nasty little kick up to the A25.
Over Leith and the dips and rises toward Dorking in the lead group and no sign of cramping legs, a very welcome surprise. Not everyone made it over and the group must have dropped to around 50.
There was a hairy moment coming into Dorking, I was unsighted and went straight over a small hole coming onto the High Street. Bang, bang and hard enough to dislodge a water bottle; thank goodness for tubs, had I been riding clinchers that would have been the end of my day.
The honest pace kept up and didn't slow until near the roundabout at the end of the A24 dual carriageway at Burford, the turn toward Box Hill. Box Hill, while very famous, is not such a difficult hill taken on its own. It is steep enough that it becomes very hard if you try to push on up it, and for riders at our level it easily sorts the weak from the strong.
I went onto the hill mid pack just behind a team mate who has been stronger on the hills than me this year. I figured the longer I could hold his wheel the more likely I'd have riders around me over the top. My three previous efforts up Box Hill had all ended in the same time to the second. I guess I have a pace I'm happy not to destroy myself at, and on Box that's it. This time however I knew it was do or die, I had to give everything here or there was a good chance it'd be a lonely ride back into London mopped up by the next wave of riders coming through. So that was it, I pushed harder than I felt comfortable but held the wheel all the way to the last corner in the trees before the café then lost half a dozen bike lengths, with one or two others around me.
Well that was tough enough, but the toughest was yet to come. There was no relief at the top of Box, I had those half dozen bike lengths to make up on a charging group ahead. I kept going with the same intensity of the hill along the false flat straight that should have allowed some relief, encouraged only by the fact that I was slowly but steadily catching the back of the group.
At the Tour of Cambridgeshire this year after a five-mile flat-out effort to re-join the front group after a split caused by a big crash, I made the mistake of thinking I was safe when I reached the back. Unfortunately for me the back of the peloton split again on one of the early rises and I was in no place to put in another effort like that to get back on.
Today that wasn't going to happen, and I kept the effort going until I was safely back in the middle of the group. Relief, what a difference tucked in there. I was able to recover from the effort on Box Hill and despite going up it some 20-30 seconds quicker than I had before I still felt pretty good. I think I was the last to make it back in and the lead group was now down to around 30 with two team mates for company.
It is amazing how the body can recover. I thought I might pay for the effort on Box Hill on the short rises that greet riders on the way toward Leatherhead but instead I felt quite strong and by Leatherhead was feeling good enough to come right to the front. A team mate took a couple of turns, so I took up a place in the line and took my turn on the front of the group. Well, strong is a relative term I guess. Not so strong that I wanted to do that again in a hurry. The amount of extra effort required to push the pace at the front of a group is substantial. Kudos to those capable of sustaining that at this pace over this distance.
By now I could look at the time and see we had little more than an hour of riding left with only the short jab at Wimbledon in the way. Surely I could hang on in there? With the wind behind the pace was high, we were averaging 28.5 mph and as it turned out did so for the final 20 miles. Having reached the Surrey Hills slower than last year it seemed a sub 4 hour ride was unlikely. That said, with a tail wind and this pace not out of the question.
Two highlights of the event for me are passing through Kingston on the return with riders streaming through on the other side of the road and plenty of support from the many charities that base themselves there, and after negotiating Wimbledon Hill the flat out sprint down into my old stomping grounds of Putney and Fulham. With those two highlights to look forward to the miles between rattled off quickly. Last year I remember looking back as we rode in to Putney expecting to see a hundred riders and instead saw a void. That was a real shock. This year it was too fast and I wasn't right at the back so only managed a quick glance. Again, beyond our group there was no one. Don't get dropped!!
The next point of interest would be coming on to the Embankment, here I was sure there would be attacks and the pace would rise. It didn't happen and we rode fast but not furiously until the jostle for position going up Whitehall ready for the turn on to the Mall.
I was placed mid to back of the group and rounded the final corner on the outside; fast and without fuss, the pace accelerated. Not exhausted I held my line and started to accelerate reeling in riders in front of me. A team mate that was well positioned going on to the Mall was in sight and I was travelling fast enough to catch the group around him and go past. As I did, legs beginning to scream, bang, my left quad seized with cramp and that was that; I'd come up 50 metres short and rolled over the line. Given the anticipated outcome before the event I'll take that, no complaints at all.
As I understand it Arlen Vartarzarian broke away from the front group on Box Hill with two bridging across soon after, Rob Sharland and one other, possibly ex-pro Yanto Barker who punctured, leaving the other two to ride two-up to the end where nearly 50-year-old Arlen triumphed, rubber-stamping his recent age group win at the Tour of Cambridgeshire. The 30 or so following behind came in a minute down with the next group five minutes later.
RideLondon is a great event for all interested in cycling and there is every reason to tackle the event for whatever personal motivation. For me it was challenging myself to stay with the lead group and see our club Amersham Road Cycling do well in the Club Challenge. Both targets achieved, we set the fastest combined time. We won!
I finished in under 4 hours, 20 seconds faster than last year and quicker through the Surrey Hills than my previous best effort.
Perfect preparation? Perhaps it's overrated!
The ballot for entries to the 2018 RideLondon-Surrey 100 is now open. Visit www.prudentialridelondon.co.uk to enter.