After months of training at a level I had never committed myself to before, the weekend of the ride seemed to come at me out of nowhere. The sun was scorching when I left Anna and the boys at the train station as I set out for London Excel to register and collect my number, checking into my hotel on the way.
There was a frantic air about the show. Getting my number was easy and perfectly organised (although I still question why this could not have been posted to me). From registration I then passed into the Wiggle store – the only route into the main show – and mass crowds gathered around the section for rain coats, leg warmers and arm warmers. These were all items that I myself did not have and was still telling myself I wouldn’t need. I had ridden in the rain before and I wasn’t made out of sugar; I almost walked out of the Wiggle stand without joining the mayhem, but the mood was infectious.
I did not need to push through the crowds by the time I had decided to get a jacket because the male section had been hit by locust. Not a single medium or large rain garment remained and the XL I tried on hung on my now slimmer than usual frame like a tent with too few poles. I looked again and again, knowing there had to be one that someone had missed which would fit me, but I was looking mainly at bare orange walls in most places.
A tap on the shoulder brought me out of the fruitless task of staring. It was a Wiggle sales staff and she took me over to the woman’s section which still had a few coats left. She handed me a transparent dhb size 16 that was a little snug, but the size 18 was almost tailored to my shape. I thanked her and also snagged a pair of dhb leg warmers for ten quid before stepping out into the show proper.
I took a good long look at the broom wagon that was on display, but when taking a photo I spotted my battery was nearly dead. This led me to the realisation that despite having a power pack to charge my phone with, the cord to go between them was still in the kitchen at home. Wanting to be able to call home at the end as well as track the ride on Strava, I forsook the talk about riding in numbers and the trials stunt show I had hoped to watch and hunted down a Carphone warehouse.
I was therefore in my hotel room at a very reasonable hour, with my numbers stuck to my bike and clothing, bag packed, pockets filled with tracker bars and wine gums and armed with three bottles of London Pride to see me through the night.
I set my alarm for 5am but woke at 3:30am. I had polished off breakfast by 5:00am and was on the road by 6:00 to the start line which was 4 miles away from the hotel. Again I was greeted with the efficiency that had to exist for such a large event. Signs took the stress of navigation away from me as far as 2 miles out from my starting zone and although in place an hour before rolling over the start that time seemed to pass in a blink of an eye.
Disappointment flooded me when news spread of the confirmed shortening of the route. I had seen a post that morning but had hoped it was not true. Box Hill and Leith hill had been diverted around for reasons of safety and as the Hub at the top of Box Hill had now also been removed there was no way it was coming back into the route even if the rain held off.
Ten, nine, eight – one foot clicked in – seven, six, five, four, three – press start on Strava - two, one…
We push off as one and the silence of those all around is a little bewildering. Rolling on perfectly smooth tarmac of the QE park I look down to see we are already rolling at 16 mph. Out onto the roads the rain starts and not even a mile has been completed yet and my speed was suddenly up to 18 mph. Puncture after puncture, and I mean dozens of bikes upturned with people frantically trying to fix the problem in now pouring rain, littered the side of the road and we were not yet two miles in. I passed through the Limehouse tunnel, going against the grain of all those around me ridding in silence and instead called out an elongated “TUNNNNEEEEELLLLLLL” which echoed around me and set me chuckling, but this stopped when I climbed out of the tunnel back into sheeting rain to see two bikes grounded and a young woman sobbing on the floor while someone tried to comfort her.
Another crash involving another woman at 10 miles in required an ambulance and I had now seen enough to drop into the zone. Instead of riding the wheel of whomever I caught up with, I let the 22 mph drop and found a comfortable solo pace around 17 mph. The danger was all too real.
Passing through Richmond Park I began to climb and wondered briefly if this was the hill Paul had often posted times for. That wondering stopped when a Paramedic bike sped past me and near the top I saw the blood being washed down by the rain. At the top of the hill sat a man holding his face. His bike and two others lay on the grass and I think the ride was over for all of them.
30 miles in, I could not feel my toes. I was eating constantly and keeping hydrated, but water levels were getting low. I pulled into a Hub, thinking only of water, but the size of the crowd denied any quick turnaround. My average speed ticked down from a healthy 17 mph and was at 14 mph by the time I got back on the road. This annoyed me a little as I felt many people were lingering to get some shelter from the rain rather than passing through the hub as quickly as possible and my mentality to get out of the rain was to finish the race as quickly as I could.
The next hub came at 50 miles at the top of Newlands Corner. I had been dreading the climb, having done it before on a ride from Reigate to Farnham, but the weather completely distracted me from it. I was also climbing the side I had previously descended so reaching the top was a complete surprise and the monster I had feared was behind me without much drama.
The Hub here was again congested. I risked getting mud in my cleats by coming out of the crowd, hopping the barrier and moving to a tap I had spotted behind the feed stations. This likely saved me up to 20 minutes – although it earned me a few disapproving looks from marshals.
I had been hoping for the descents to help lift my average, but with my brakes constantly feathered, near to being fully on, I was struggling to get below 25 mph. Traction was near non-existent and there were too many riders that believed their own pace was more important than other peoples safety. On more than one occasion I found myself berating some fool that had come past too close and without a word of warning.
The rain eased off after Newlands – although it refused to stop completely. The wind remained but was fortunately now getting behind me rather than smashing me in the face. Wimbledon Hill posed no great challenge and I bypassed the final Hub to take advantage of the improving weather. A quick stop on the side lines ten miles from the end allowed me to finally and safely remove the raincoat I had nearly ridden without and my speed increased further, bolstered by returning on roads I remembered from setting out that morning.
When at last I reached the red tarmac of the Mall the crowd was a welcome din, cheering us all on as we sprinted for a dramatic finish. All of the rain, the wind, the crashes, the plethora of ill-mannered and obnoxious teams riding like fools and many moments of horror created by flooded roads, wet cambers and fallen tree limbs faded away. I laughed aloud when a tandem hurtled past me and across the line, only to then skid to a halt to avoid carnage with those who had stopped after crossing rather than carrying on as instructed. My own crossing of the finish was at an official time of 5 hours 32 mins and I was shoulder to shoulder with the lovely Amy Williams. Had I known this at the time rather than afterwards when seeing official photos...
Regardless, I had completed the Prudential Ride London. Strava had tracked 90 miles after the diversion away from Box Hill and Leith hill – 86 miles racing and 4 miles to the start – but the conditions had amply plugged the challenge gap that had been created by the removal of hills. 2,534 feet of climbing equalled that which I had done in my 50 mile training sportive in Farnham, but I have not come away feeling I’d had an easy ride.
Next year will come around and I will let it pass. I have raised more than £580 for UNICEF to help them equip health care workers with bikes and vaccines for those hard to reach places in the world and I have completed an iconic race regardless of diversions. However, as elated as I may have felt receiving my medal the experience simply does not match up to riding with the wolf pack on our own unorganised, barely structured and generally brutal adventures.
So this teaches me a lesson, if not simply confirms what I already knew; the beauty of cycling is not in crossing the line, but more in the pedal strokes to get there.